What a Meth Lab Smells Like

Blue Crystal Meth
Blue crystal meth is caused by the source material used in the drug synthesis. (Psychonaught)

Transportable laboratories known as mobile drug labs or rolling meth labs are used to synthesize the stimulant methamphetamine. The reason the lab is mobile is to evade detection. Meth labs release toxic vapors and produce a significant amount of trash, so having one in a fixed location makes it easier to find. Some of the chemicals used to make meth are flammable and explosive, so a rolling drug lab presents a risk to the community.

Tell-tale Signs of a Meth Lab

Do you live or work next to a meth lab? How would you know? The big giveaway of a meth lab is its trash, which includes everyday chemicals that aren’t found together except when someone is cooking meth. Common examples of drug lab garbage include cat litter, toluene, ammonia, ether, muriatic acid (hydrochloric acid), sulfuric acid, acetone (nail polish remover), soda bottles, matches, ether, and pseudoephedrine packages.

Meth Lab Trash
This is trash from a mobile meth lab in Iowa. (Bill Whittaker)

Typical Meth Lab Odors

Assuming you don’t see evidence of a drug shopping list, you might be able to smell a drug lab. What kind of smell is a tip off? Basically, there are a number of chemical-type smells that could be associated with meth synthesis, including the rotten egg smell of sulfur compounds, a nail polish sweet ether or toluene smell or a cat urine ammonia smell. Fewer labs use anhydrous ammonia (usually from fertilizer) and red phosphorus (from matches), so while an ammonia odor could be an indicator, it isn’t always present. There isn’t any single “meth lab smell.”

Things to Keep in Mind

Before calling the law, take into account the household uses of stinky chemicals. Does your neighbor have a ton of cats and a predilection for cleaning with ammonia? Have you seen him out in his driveway spraying ether into his auto engine? Chances are he is not cooking meth! However, if you smell these odors routinely, it’s worth having them checked out. The chemical stink comes from toxic chemicals, plus some of them may be flammable. While a motorhome was used to cook meth in the television series “Breaking Bad,” labs also use of trucks, vans, or even motorcycles.

Cooking meth in a mobile lab contaminates the vehicle and produces lingering environmental effects. Clean-up requires a licensed and certified company, so if you do detect a lab in your neighborhood, don’t deal with the problem yourself!