Warning Signs an Onsite System Is Serving a Meth Lab

Warning Signs an Onsite System Is Serving a Meth Lab

Abnormally high or low pH values have been associated with other illegal dumping of meth waste into septic tanks. This graph shows data from a community onsite system in Minnesota where a meth lab was discovered because of periodic spikes of influent CBOD that were 10 times stronger than typical domestic waste. 

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Methamphetamine, commonly referred to as meth, is a toxic and highly addictive drug that is made in makeshift labs. It is also referred to as crank, speed, ice or chalk. Meth is an illegal substance and has a high potential for abuse and addition. Makeshift meth labs in rural areas are common.

Warning signs of a meth lab

Warning signs may include strong or unusual odors (odors that have been encountered at meth labs include solvents, ammonia, ether, vinegar or other sour smells), increased nighttime activity on a property, excessive amounts of trash, unusual security systems, blocked-off windows or windows covered with foil, and discoloration of structures and pavement

Another warning sign is propane tanks with blue or green fittings. Ammonia stored in the tanks reacts with the brass fitting on the tank and results in a blue or green discoloration. If you see a propane tank with a discolored fitting, do not approach the container because the brass degrades to the point where the ammonia can blow the fitting out of the tank. 

Concerns for onsite wastewater professionals

Never handle materials that look suspicious. Unmarked trash bags can contain contaminated glassware and needles, and skin contact may result in burns or poisoning. Moving a bag with unknown contents can expose the contents to water or air, which could cause an explosion.

Currently, there are no health precautions or guidelines related to meth lab waste for onsite wastewater professionals. The most commonly dumped or flushed chemicals are solvents. Upon entering a septic tank, the chemicals are generally diluted by the liquid in the tank and thus would not classify as hazardous waste. Depending on the type and concentration of the chemical, the bacterial community in the tank may be able to degrade it before it would leave the tank.

The following case study describes how one operator identified and handled a meth lab that was discharging to an onsite cluster system in Minnesota. 

Case study

A meth lab was discovered in Minnesota connected to a community onsite wastewater system. The first indication was periodic spikes of influent carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand that were 10 times stronger than typical domestic waste. After the first few spikes, the influent water-quality pH was monitored with a closer eye. A normal pH value for this wastewater was 7.0 to 7.5 standard units, but when the CBOD spikes occurred, the pH dropped to 4.0 to 5.0 standard units. Abnormally high or low pH values have been associated with other illegal dumping of meth waste into septic tanks.

At this point, the local deputy sheriff and the regional fire department were contacted. The deputy sheriff had a good history of the people in the area and ran background checks, and the fire department had the equipment to do some preliminary tests on the wastewater. They tested individual and shared grinder stations, screened the samples for VOCs and called in the Drug Enforcement Administration for assistance.

Contact your local law enforcement agency if you suspect you may be dealing with meth lab waste. Local law enforcement can investigate the site and, if necessary, perform screening tests.

About the author: Sara Heger, Ph.D., is an engineer, researcher and instructor in the Onsite Sewage Treatment Program in the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota. She presents at many local and national training events regarding the design, installation, and management of septic systems and related research. Heger is education chair of the Minnesota Onsite Wastewater Association and the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association, and she serves on the NSF International Committee on Wastewater Treatment Systems. Ask Heger questions about septic system maintenance and operation by sending an email to kim.peterson@colepublishing.com.


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