Protecting workers from the dangers of clandestine laboratories

This fact sheet gives information on:

  • Risks associated with drug production in clandestine drug laboratories (clan labs).
  • Health effects that can arise from exposure to lab chemicals, by-products or residues.
  • How to identify a clan lab, from signs outside or inside a property.
  • Recommended procedures should a clan lab be discovered or suspected.

What is a Clandestine (Clan) Laboratory?

A clandestine laboratory is any location in which drugs, such as methamphetamine, are illicitly produced.  As well as residential and industrial premises, mobile and partial clan labs have been found in vehicles, motels, caravans and campervans. In short, any area with access to a water and electricity supply can be used as a clan lab.

Should you be concerned about clan labs?

If you are involved in one of these occupations, your workers may come in contact with a clan lab or a former clan lab (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Environmental Health inspection
  • Probation
  • Police
  • Building inspection
  • Noise control
  • Dog control
  • Social work
  • Midwifery
  • Nursing
  • Public health work
  • Building
  • Plumbing
  • Electrical
  • Painting
  • Meter reading
  • Real estate

 

In short, if you or your staff visit people’s homes or workplaces as part of their work, they should be alert for the presence or former presence of a clan lab.

Any occupations that involve searching, inspecting and removal of vehicles and such like may also be at risk.

How can clan labs cause your workers harm?

The production of drugs requires the use of chemicals which may be poisonous, corrosive, toxic, extremely flammable and/or explosive.

The risks posed by these chemicals vary. Some are mildly hazardous, others extremely so. Risks can remain high for months after a clan lab stops being used as such.

Significant health risks are posed by toxic, acidic and potentially flammable fumes and waste chemical by-products produced during the ‘cooking’ process.

The risk of a clan lab fire or explosion is high during a drug “cook”. Manufacturers of drugs often have limited knowledge of the chemical hazards and little concern for the safety of others.

What are the health effects of exposure to clan labs?

Both short and long-term health effects can arise from exposure to clan lab chemicals or by-products. These effects are dependent on the concentration, quantity, the route and duration of exposure. Chemicals may enter the body by being inhaled, eaten, injected or absorbed through the skin.

Symptoms of short-term (acute) exposure commonly include:

  • shortness of breath
  • coughing and/or diaphragm pain
  • chest pains
  • dizziness
  • lack of co-ordination
  • feeling of coldness or weakness
  • chemical irritation or burns to skin, eyes, nose and mouth (burns may result from concentrated acids and bases used in the manufacture of drugs).

What about former clan labs?

Unintentional exposure to drugs and the by-products of their manufacture can occur where people are living in, or visit, properties formerly housing a clan lab.  Contaminants absorbed by the structure and furnishings can be released for years afterwards.

Resulting symptoms include:

  • headaches
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • fatigue or lethargy
  • breathing issues.

Medical Assistance

Should a worker display any or all of these symptoms medical assistance should be sought from their medical practitioner.  Severe acute symptoms may require immediate transfer of the worker to hospital.

How can you identify a clan lab?

Locations vary and can include residential properties, apartments, motels, vehicles to name a few.  It is important for workers who conduct property visits to be aware of signs that indicate a clan lab may be present.

External Indicators

Immediately detectable at the time of your visit:

  • Ammonia or solvent smells.
  • Windows blackened out or boarded over.
  • Expensive security and surveillance gear.
  • Rubbish including a lot of cold medication containers or packaging.
  • Chemical containers.
  • Burn pits, stained soil, dead vegetation.
  • Occupants unfriendly, appear secretive about activities.

What others may report:

  • Unusually high water usage, eg: on rural property, refilling of water tanks regularly.
  • Exhaust fans running at odd times.
  • Frequent visitors at odd hours.
  • Unusual behaviour of occupants.
  • Access denied to landlords, neighbours, other visitors.

Internal Indicators

  • Internal security measures.
  • Laboratory glassware and equipment.
  • Containers with clear liquids in them with a chalky coloured solid on the bottom.
  • Containers with two layered liquids, ie one dark coloured layer and one clear or pale yellow layer.
  • Used coffee filters containing either a white pasty or reddish brown substance.
  • Baking dishes or similar containing white crystalline substance.
  • The presence of hot plates near chemicals.
  • Improvised equipment; e.g. plastic bottles, pressure cookers.
  • Containers with labels removed.
  • Missing light bulbs.
  • Chemical smells.

What should you do if you find a clan lab?

If you discover an active or past clan lab:

  • Evacuate the property immediately.
  • Call the police immediately and do not go back inside.
  • Prevent anyone else entering until the Police arrive
  • Do not:
  • taste, touch or smell any chemicals or equipment
  • attempt to stop a chemical reaction
  • turn any electrical device on or off, such as lights or a fan, as this could trigger an explosion
  • shut off the water supply to the property or the chemical reaction
  • smoke in or near a clan lab
  • use tools, radios, cell-phones, torches or devices that produce sparks or friction.

If you are affected by the chemicals present

Seek medical help immediately.

Further information

Where there is any suspicion of drug manufacture during a property visit, your organisation’s property visit policy should be followed.  Worker’s immediate health and safety are the main priority. 

For information on the identification of clandestine laboratories from NZ Police download this