« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

The makings of a meth lab


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Mike LaScoula makes sure I correctly write down the following quote: "Not everyone associated with meth is a dirtbag," says the Spokane County Health District's chemical and physical hazards adviser, "but they are all dumb asses."

To prove his point, LaScoula takes me to a two-story, wood-frame house that, until recently, was a thriving meth lab. It's only a couple of blocks from a public school. On this day, LaScoula replaced the posted warning notices on the house, which schoolkids love to rip off and hang as trophies in their bedrooms. LaScoula's job is to determine if these busted labs are fit for habitation and to present the usually unsuspecting landlords with the bill for cleanup - as high as $10,000.

Most labs are rental property, and tenants who are arrested are often not even on the original lease. Some homes are so contaminated that the only choice is to bulldoze the structure, LaScoula says.

The chemicals used to manufacture meth are common household items: Coleman fuel, charcoal lighter fluid, pseudoephedrine-based cold tablets. Other ingredients include acetone, methanol, sulfuric acid, sodium hydroxide, red phosphorus and ether. (Anhydrous ammonia is one of the hardest ingredients for meth cooks to purchase legally, which has led to a rash of tapped fertilizer tanks.)

Many of these chemicals are stored improperly, of course, and it's not unusual for a lab to explode. Ether, for example, which is heavier than air, is highly flammable. That's why police, searching for labs, keep an eye out for emaciated, nervous people smoking outside on the coldest winter days. Labs are often discovered because of their smell, described as similar to cat urine.

"When you go into one of these homes, you have a lab that is potentially hazardous, you have firearms, and you have kids in the same house," says Lieut. Chan Bailey, commander of the Spokane Regional Drug Task Force. Children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic fumes given off by cooking meth, according to LaScoula, Bailey and others. They are also usually neglected by their meth-using parents, who are on a binge-and-crash cycle (meth users will frequently stay awake for several days while high, then sleep for a day or two). Child Protective Services routinely removes neglected children from their parents and moves them to foster homes. Such children are often malnourished with poor personal hygiene, left alone to eat junk food and sit in front of television sets.

"It's amazing how sharp and acrid these places can be," says LaScoula. "You look around and you see things that shouldn't be rusty are completely corroded. What really bugs you is when you run into places where the rust is starting to take its toll on kids' toys. It makes you wonder why these people would live in an environment that would turn the moisture in their lungs to hydrochloric acid."

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Stephen Lyons