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A rolling meth lab is a transportable laboratory that is used to illegally produce methamphetamine. Rolling meth labs are often moved to a secluded location where the strong, toxic fumes of methamphetamine manufacture cannot be detected and where the toxic manufacturing byproducts can be discarded. They are sometimes designed to manufacture the drug while the lab is traveling.
The process of "cooking" methamphetamine can be dangerous as it involves poisonous, flammable, and explosive chemicals: in November 2001, a rolling meth lab that was carrying anhydrous ammonia exploded on Interstate 24 in southwest Kentucky, prompting law enforcement to shut down the freeway. Such incidents have not only injured the meth producers, but have injured passing motorists and police officers, who are also exposed to dangerous fumes.
The main dangers of transporting depend on the method used to produce the methamphetamine. Anhydrous Ammonia is often stolen from farm sites - where it is used as fertilizer - and placed into a household ice cooler or into an old propane tank. Neither the cooler nor the propane tank is designed to hold this highly pressurized and volatile gas. Anhydrous means "without water" in general terms. The gas will burn the eyes and throat robbing the body of any moisture. Inhalation of the gas can cause severe lung damage or even death. In an accident, the vessels used to contain this gas generally fail.
The anhydrous ammonia method, however, is an actual method of making methamphetamine. It is far from the most popular method due to the introduction of the Shake and Bake method. This method cuts out the need for anhydrous ammonia as well as red phosphorus. All the ingredients are simply placed into a bottle and shaken while the chemical reaction occurs. This reaction occurs under pressure and the bottle must be frequently unscrewed to release pressure. Methamphetamine producers often call this "burping" the bottle. The dangers of transporting a shake and bake lab are similar to those of transporting anhydrous ammonia. If the bottle turns on its side and certain ingredients combine with each other, an explosion can occur. This is because an organic solvent such as Coleman fuel is often exposed to lithium and water when the bottle tips, and when water hits lithium it will cause reactions leading to combustion.
The best course of action when finding out that you are near a mobile meth lab is to evacuate the area and wait for the professionals to come. They have specialized training to deal with the dangers of a meth lab.
As with a home lab, so the remaining fumes from a crude moving methamphetamine lab can be extremely toxic. The surfaces of the vehicle's interior can be coated or impregnated with the poisonous residue, rendering the vehicle worthless. Vehicles stolen for the single purpose of manufacture of the drug are most often considered contaminated and unusable, as exposure to the by-products of the chemical reaction remaining in the vehicle is frequently too dangerous to attempt decontamination. A further complication is that the "cooking" methods for meth frequently change so the proper remediation for a given lab site cannot be assumed from previous known lab methods. Law enforcement Hazmat teams assigned to dispose of the toxic materials must be cautious and receive training on a regular basis.
Rolling meth labs can be concealed on or in vehicles as large as 18 wheelers or as small as motorcycles. Rolling labs are more difficult to detect than stationary ones and can be often hidden amidst legal cargo on big trucks. Many recent rolling lab discoveries were the result of an officer just "stumbling" onto them. Improved officer training and checking suspicious vehicles with K-9 units may allow increased detection.