Article at a Glance:
- Meth production involves the use of dangerous chemicals, which tend to have a powerful smell.
- A home where meth is produced is likely to have a strong chemical odor as a result of the ammonia and other chemicals used to produce it. Some people describe meth as smelling like window cleaner, rotten eggs or cat urine.
- Odd behavior, such as residents who rarely come outside or people who burn or haul away trash, can indicate a meth lab. Residents may also appear paranoid, have frequent visitors or keep curtains drawn at all times.
- Meth production is dangerous, so if you suspect there is a meth house in your neighborhood, it is important to alert law enforcement and never approach the house yourself.
Table of Contents
Does Meth Have a Smell?
When meth is smoked, it tends to have a lighter, more subtle and almost sweet smell.
As a result of the materials used, meth can smell like powerful chemicals. For example, signs of a meth lab can include smells of paint or something that’s often called a “hospital smell” because of the powerful chemical cleaners used in medical facilities.
In some cases, meth smells like vinegar or ammonia, which is an odor similar to window cleaners. People may also describe the odor from meth production as smelling like rotten eggs or cat urine.
- Almost sweet
In the lab:
- Powerful chemicals
- “Hospital smell”
- Vinegar or ammonia
- Cat urine or rotten eggs
Why Does Meth Smell?
Answering the question, “Why does meth smell?” relies on an understanding of how it’s made.
Meth is created through a process called cooking. It begins with extracting ephedrine or pseudoephedrine from cold or diet medicines. Then, there’s a chemical reaction that can occur by adding ingredients such as ammonia and lithium, and a solvent is added to extract the meth. Acidic gas goes through the meth and creates the crystals.
How Meth is Made?
Most of the meth that’s illicitly purchased and used in the U.S. is made in Mexico, but some is made in domestic labs, whether large or small. As part of the Combat Methamphetamine Act of 2005, Congress set requirements that retailers and pharmacies track the purchase of products frequently used to make the drug, such as pseudoephedrine. There are also limits on how much of certain over-the-counter medicines people can purchase in one day as a result.
What Ingredients are Used to Make Meth?
The process of making meth is dangerous, as is using the drug, and the materials are not just toxic but also flammable and explosive.
Some of the ingredients that may be used to make meth include:
- Acetone, which is found in nail polish remover and paint thinner
- Anhydrous ammonia found in cleaners and fertilizer
- Hydrochloric acid, which is corrosive and can eat away at the flesh
- Lithium, which is explosive and can also cause burns to the skin
- Red phosphorous, which is found in explosives and is very flammable
- Sulfuric acid, which is commonly used in drain cleaner and toilet cleaner and can burn skin
What To Do if Something Smells Like Meth
When people smell strange chemicals coming from a neighbor’s home, they may begin to wonder if there is a meth lab present. If you suspect that someone is producing meth, you are probably unsure of what to do.
How To Spot a Meth Lab
Along with smells, some of the signs of a meth lab can include odd activity at late night hours, people who seem to be unemployed but appear to have no problem paying bills, people who appear paranoid, or homes where there are frequent visitors throughout the day and night hours. The curtains of a meth lab may often be drawn, or people might go outside to smoke a cigarette rather than doing it in the house.
There may also be dead spots in the lawn because of dumping chemicals or waste, or there could be a lot of bottles and containers piled up in the garbage.
Some common behaviors and signs that may suggest there is a meth lab in the neighborhood include:
- High-tech security systems for monitoring traffic around the house
- Residents of the house showing fear toward strangers
- Burning trash, or taking it away and disposing of it elsewhere to avoid being caught
- Household residents rarely come outside but have frequent visitors
The Dangers of Being Exposed to a Meth Lab
Beyond the signs of meth production, there are numerous dangers associated with being exposed to a meth lab. One study found that the need for healthcare services to address meth exposure was high for both law enforcement officers and meth cooks. Frequently reported health problems included headache, breathing difficulties, nausea, vomiting and irritation to the eyes.
The dangers of being exposed to a meth lab are so great, in fact, that even people who move into a former meth lab may be at risk of health problems. A 2017 study reported on the experiences of a family of five who moved into a former meth lab, which was not properly cleaned after the previous owner was arrested for meth production. Seven months after the family moved into the home, they were advised that it was a former drug laboratory.
The family members, who had never used meth, underwent medical evaluations. All family members tested positive for meth and experienced health problems from living in the contaminated home. The youngest child in the family experienced the most significant problems, which included sleep disturbances, symptoms of asthma and behavioral problems. Other health problems in the family included ongoing cough, watery eyes, weight loss and dizziness. These issues were resolved six to 12 months after the family moved out of the home.
What To Do If You Suspect Meth Use or Production in Your Neighborhood
Meth production is dangerous and can bring crime to the neighborhood, so if you are confident that you are smelling meth or observing signs of meth production, the issue should be addressed. You may be fearful of angering neighbors who are producing meth, but many law enforcement agencies and drug task forces allow citizens to submit anonymous tips.
If you suspect meth production and trafficking, you should contact your local law enforcement or drug task force. Consider submitting an anonymous tip via the internet. Even if you choose not to remain anonymous, you should always avoid addressing the issue yourself. Confronting people who are producing meth could place you in danger, not only because of retribution from producers but also because you may be in physical danger from corrosive chemicals if you approach a residence where meth is produced.
Also, keep in mind that if you notice signs of a meth house in the neighborhood, there is a chance something else could be going on, and your suspicions may not be correct. Law enforcement officers are trained to investigate complaints of drug trafficking, so it’s important to report concerns to them instead of investigating them yourself.
Mulvey, Erin. “First Arrest In The Nation For Violating The Combat Methamphetamine Act.” Drug Enforcement Administration, March 30, 2007. Accessed April 26, 2021.
Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford. “Recognizing a meth house/structure.” Accessed April 26, 2021.
Thrasher, Dennis L.; Von Derau, Katie; Burgess, Jefferey. “Health effects from reported exposure to methamphetamine labs: a poison center-based study.” Journal of Medical Toxicology, 2009. Accessed April 26, 2021.
Wright, J.; Kenneally, M.E.; Edwards, J.W.; Walker, G.S. “Adverse Health Effects Associated with Living in a Former Methamphetamine Drug Laboratory — Victoria, Australia, 2015.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, January 6, 2017. Accessed April 26, 2021.
- Medical Disclaimer
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.