Can You Recognize a Meth Lab by Its Smell?

Meth labs do smell bad but there are other clues to look for as well

Man in a protective suit sorting crystal meth into packs

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No one wants to live next door to a meth lab, but how do you know if there's one in your neighborhood? There are several things to look for if you suspect illegal drug production is going on. Here are some clues.

The 'Meth Lab Smell'

Often the biggest giveaway to the production of illegal drugs is the smell the process gives off.\ What sort of smell are you looking for? While there isn't a single scent that's a definite tip-off for meth production, several chemicals waft distinctive odors often associated with cooking meth.

Examples of meth lab odors might include a sweet ether smell, acrid chemical fumes, ammonia or cat urine odor, or a rotten-egg sulfurous stink—not the kind of aromas you'd want your own home to smell like.

Meth Lab Chemicals

There's more than one way to cook meth, but if you see or smell evidence of these chemicals together, it might be a likely indication of the presence of a meth lab:

  • acetone
  • isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol or Iso-Heet fuel treatment)
  • methyl alcohol (wood spirits or Heet fuel treatment)
  • lye (as in Red Devil lye)
  • crystal or liquid iodine
  • mineral spirits
  • bleach
  • anhydrous ammonia
  • sulfuric acid (car battery acid)
  • hydrochloric acid (muriatic acid)
  • matches/matchbox strikers (to obtain red phosphorus)
  • cold tablets containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine
  • white gas (often used for camp stoves or lantern fuel)
  • lithium (from lithium batteries)
  • trichloroethane (solvent for gun cleaning)
  • sodium metal or rock or table salt
  • ether (starter fluid)
  • toluene

Since these chemicals give off unpleasant and toxic fumes, you may notice some sort of ventilation system—such as a chimney or fan(s)—for blowing the vapors out of the building. However, don't expect to see smoke or any visible sign of "cooking."

Meth Lab Clues: The Trash Will Out

Meth labs tend to be covert operations. Often, the windows are boarded up or the shades are always drawn. (Sometimes, the windows are simply covered up with paper or foil.) Guard dogs, "Beware of Dog!" and "Keep Out!" signs are common as well. Another major clue that you may be dealing with a meth lab in your neighborhood is the contents of their trash cans. Watch for these types of products in the garbage:

  • paint thinner
  • antifreeze
  • plastic soda bottles with holes or tubes at the top
  • acetone containers
  • drain cleaners
  • brake fluid
  • reddish stained coffee filters
  • used rags
  • broken lithium batteries
  • cold tablet packaging

Because trash says a lot about a person's activities, people who cook meth sometimes separate their garbage and put some of it in with a neighbor's trash.

Other Indications of a Meth Lab 

  • Since spilling or dumping chemicals can kill the grass, dead patches in the lawn can be a sign there's a meth lab in the house.
  • Because meth production involves the use of flammable chemicals, people cooking meth tend to smoke outdoors, away from the building.
  • Occupants of a meth lab might appear secretive or antisocial, yet they entertain a lot of visitors who come and go at all hours.

What to Do If You Suspect a Meth Lab

If you think you've come across a meth lab, there's a right way and a wrong way to deal with it. The right way is to play it cool and avoid alerting the cook to your suspicions. The wrong way is to go snooping, accusing, or trying to handle it yourself. In addition to the potential for being exposed to chemical hazards, people who cook meth can be violent. Here are some steps to take:

  1. Call the authorities and explain why you think you've come across a meth lab. Follow their instructions.
  2. Don't touch anything. Especially don't open any containers, which may contain toxic or reactive chemicals. Don't turn on or turn off any electric switches. Just quietly leave the premises.
  3. Don't light a match or a cigarette or anything that might ignite flammable chemicals.
  4. Touching chemicals can give you a chemical burn or poison you. Similarly, breathing in the fumes from a meth lab can harm your health. Even if you have left the immediate property, if your yard or home smell bad or you can smell the fumes at all, you're still too close.

View Article Sources

  1. Effects of Skin Contact With Chemicals.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Aug. 2011.

  2. Dangers of Meth Labs.” USDA Forest Service.