Beware of Stumbling Into a Meth Lab

Breaking Bad has run its course, but septic service technicians heading into the busy season must continue to be aware of home-based drug production.
Beware of Stumbling Into a Meth Lab
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Did you get caught up in the television phenomenon of Breaking Bad, which wrapped up a few years ago? The show about a terminally ill chemistry teacher transforming into a drug kingpin captivated television audiences, with unexpected plot twists and gruesome edge-of-your-seat surprises prompting a new habit of “binge watching’’ television series.

I came to the show late, watching the exploits of unhinged characters Walter White and Jesse Pinkman as they cooked methamphetamine and spiraled into ever-more-dangerous lives of crime. Unnerving at times due to the graphic violence, I couldn’t bring myself to watch every episode, returning now and again to see how Walter was faring.

But when I’d hit Netflix for an update and see the guys cooking away, I’d often think back to a story we ran in Pumper in 2008 about signs to look for that a septic service customer is running a meth lab. In light of Breaking Bad, the warnings to septic tank pumpers in Gary Barnes’ story seem prophetic nearly a decade later.

As pumpers across the country gear up for the busy 2016 season, it’s a good time to revisit the issue of home-cooked meth and remind your technicians about the telltale signs that they might unwittingly stumble into a dangerous cooking operation by simply responding to a customer’s call about a failing septic system.


Unfortunately, this is really a serious concern for pumpers, as the drug is often produced in crude, makeshift labs in rural homes, mixing a toxic slurry of common household products on kitchen countertops or in bathtubs. To understand the likelihood of someone on your team encountering one of these criminal operations, all you have to do is look at an interactive map of the United States published by CNN in 2013 showing the number of meth labs discovered by county:

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration numbers are staggering and widespread. For example, police identified the highest number of meth labs in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with 979 sites. Counties that also had high numbers of meth labs included Jefferson, Missouri (472); Summit, Ohio (353); Kalamazoo, Michigan (318); and Kanawha, West Virginia (235). Few regions are spared these illegal operations, which appear to be more common in the Southeast, Midwest and Western states.

The problem was serious when Gary Barnes, a registered environmental health specialist with extensive experience in the onsite wastewater industry, wrote about it in Pumper in 2008. And it remains a concern, according to a federal National Survey on Drug Use and Health released in 2012 during the height of the Breaking Bad series. In the survey, 1.2 million people in the U.S. reportedly used meth in the prior year, and 440,000 reportedly used it in the previous month. In 2011, meth use was reported as the reason for 103,000 emergency room visits in the U.S. The good news is that this number was trending a bit downward from a survey several years earlier.


The National Environmental Services Center at West Virginia University produced a report to help explain the basics about methamphetamine or meth, also known as speed, ice, crank, crystal and glass. It is a highly addictive central nervous system stimulant that can be swallowed, inhaled, smoked or injected. Meth recipes vary, but they include a mix of inexpensive products including paint thinners, drain cleaner, cold medicines, lithium from camera batteries, Freon (refrigerant), ether (starting fluid) and ammonia.

Meth labs are often found in rural areas, those served by septic systems, according to the NESC, “because the telltale odors they produce — smelling like ammonia, ether, cat urine or rotten eggs — are less likely to be discovered in open areas. Another reason rural areas make ideal lab locations is because farms keep an ample supply of anhydrous ammonia, a nitrogen-based agricultural fertilizer that drug dealers often use to manufacture illegal meth.”

Waste from the meth manufacturing process washed down a household drain may kill the beneficial bacteria growth in the septic tank, leading to system failure and resulting in a homeowner or landlord calling on a pumper for service. That’s when you or your crew can walk into an illegal operation that could threaten your safety.

Barnes recognized all the dangers associated with meth labs — and illustrated in Breaking Bad — when he wrote about the topic in Pumper.

“Even brief exposure to meth lab chemicals can result in shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, lack of coordination, irritation and burns to the skin, eyes and mouth,’’ he said. He warned that the vaporized solvents can exceed Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH) values, resulting in coma and death.


Pumpers are advised to watch for signs of illegal drug production when they respond to a new customer location. Among these are unusual security measures at the home, such as camera monitors, bars on windows or guard dogs; windows open for ventilation, even in bad weather; makeshift ventilation systems set up in unusual places; high traffic and numerous vehicles at all hours; stained soil, burn pits or dead vegetation; and strong odors of rotten eggs or cat urine.

What should you do if you notice any of these signs of a drug operation?

“Leave. An active meth lab can endanger you not only from toxic chemicals and flammable gases, but also from those running the lab,” Barnes said. “Users are often extremely paranoid and arm themselves, booby trap the area and use attack dogs to protect their production site.”

A technician should never open the septic tank or probe a drainfield where a meth operation is suspected. Don’t touch anything or go inside buildings. After leaving the site, wash up and shower as soon as possible because airborne chemicals can be absorbed through skin. Don’t have contact with others, especially children, until you clean up, Barnes said.

“Don’t say anything to the occupants of the house about your suspicions. Have a rehearsed excuse as to why you are leaving and sound convincing if challenged,” he said. Then contact local law enforcement.


Breaking Bad finished its long and successful run on television. Those dangerous and violent fictional characters have been retired and the actors have moved on to other projects. But the real potential to stumble into an illicit home-based drug business remains. Pumpers must remain vigilant about stressing common sense safety advice when making service calls. Your valued drivers and technicians depend on it.


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