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Illicit drug laboratories

Illicit laboratory sites (drug labs or clan labs) are places where illegal drugs have been manufactured. Rental properties are the most common locations, although commercial, industrial properties, remote rural properties and hotel and motel accommodation are also used.

Possible health risks

During the drug manufacture, toxic gases and aerosols are produced. These may be absorbed by floorings, walls, drains and ducting, furnishings or fixtures. Long term exposure to residual chemical contamination produced at clan labs during illegal drug manufacture can be a risk to human health. The enHealth Guidance on: Clandestine Drug Laboratories and Public Health Risks (PDF, 885KB) highlights the risks associated with drug lab sites.

Symptoms of exposure can include:

  • throat irritation
  • breathing difficulties
  • headaches
  • skin conditions
  • mental health problems.

However, adverse health effects are mainly related to long term rather than short term exposures.

Although police remove the dangerous chemicals, drug manufacturing apparatus, and other visible remnants of drug manufacture from the sites, chemical contamination may remain in the property as many of the chemicals can be absorbed into the building structure and furnishings.

Chemical contaminants that may be present:

  • phosphine
  • iodine
  • hydrogen chloride
  • solvents
  • methylamphetamine - the drug most commonly manufactured.

Contamination can remain in structures for many years.

Testing for contaminants

Methylamphetamine field test kits, available online and at some scientific equipment and safety equipment suppliers, can determine the extent of contamination in the premises, which can help direct clean up activities. Post clean up samples should be tested by an accredited laboratory that can certify that clean-up was successful.

Queensland Health’s Forensic and Scientific Services is the only accredited laboratory in Queensland. They can provide post clean up test kits and a certificate of analysis for samples on a fee for service basis.

These sampling kits include swabs, templates, sample vials, disposable gloves and full instructions. Samples are returned to the laboratory for analysis and to test for methylamphetamine. Contact Forensic and Scientific Services for more information about sampling costs, to obtain the sampling kits and for advice on sampling.

The Queensland Police Service may be able to provide additional information about the clan lab to assist homeowners cleaning the property.

Cleaning options

Property owners have a responsibility to ensure their property is safe for future occupants, by effectively removing the chemical contamination during clean up. Options to clean the property include:

  • employing an experienced cleaning company to clean under the homeowner’s direction
  • employing an occupational hygienist or environmental scientist to manage the cleaning process

If the contamination is not extensive, homeowners may undertake to do the cleaning work themselves. If homeowners wish to clean affected properties themselves, the US Environmental Protection Agency Voluntary Guidelines for Methamphetamine Laboratory Cleanup (PDF) provide comprehensive information about suitable and effective clean up processes. Although the US EPA guidelines does not recommend using bleach, recent research indicates that washing the surfaces 3 times is effective in removing chemical contaminants:

  • the first wash with detergent,
  • the second wash with 10% bleach solution
  • the third wash with detergent.

Personal protection

If safe practices are followed during clean up, any exposure to hazardous chemicals is likely to be very low.

Wear appropriate personal protective equipment, such as:

  • disposable overalls (protection for arms, legs)
  • suitable footwear
  • a respirator mask such as a P2 disposable mask
  • protective eyewear.

The property should always be well ventilated before and during cleaning.

Regulators

Health risks from former illicit lab sites are regulated by local governments under the Public Health Act 2005, although other regulators may also be involved, for example where hazardous waste is involved.

For further information regarding possible health risks from clan lab sites, contact the Health Protection Branch.

Last updated: 29 September 2015