Arson can’t keep us down: identifying meth amidst a fire scene

 Researchers as Oklahoma State University and the ATF show that setting a meth lab aflame does not cover the perpetrator’s tracks; both accelerant and drug evidence can be recovered and identified.

Featured image credit: “Fire Burning House” to kolyaeg

Over the past decade, there has been an influx of clandestine laboratories in the United States; such as this clandestine lab in Danville, PA, that exploded and left multiple people homeless.   These labs are used for a multitude of illegal activities, including the creation of drugs like methamphetamine (meth).  During production of such substances, fires can occur, leading to death and the destruction of evidence.  Since most clandestine labs are performed in apartments or homes, there is in inherent danger, not only to those making the drugs, but those surrounding them as well. 

Recently, the most common way to make methamphetamine is the One Pot method.  As the name suggests, the One Pot method involves the addition of all necessary ingredients into one pot and letting the chemical reaction drive the process.  Certain ingredients, like diethyl ether (commonly used as a laboratory solvent or as starter fluid for some engines) or camping fuel, increase the chance of a fire.  On top of that, many cooks use plastic bottles as their pot (Fig 1).  Because a bottle does not have a strong structure, the reactive mixture often spills and ignites the vapors produced during the reaction. 

File:U.S. Border Patrol Discovers Meth Loaded Bottles Stashed in Gas Tank (24125059713).jpg
Figure 1.  Plastic water bottle containing methamphetamine confiscated by U.S. Border Patrol. Credit: US Customs and Border Protection (CCL).

Once aflame, the scene of the crime is treated as an arson scene, and evidence is collected to determine the origin and cause of the fire.  Until this study conducted by Oklahoma State University (OSU) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), it was unclear whether both drug and fire evidence could be collected from a suspected clandestine laboratory fire.

OSU, in a safe environment, created methamphetamine using diethyl ether and camping fuel, to test their detection of the chemical reagents after a fire.  After transport to the ATF’s Fire Research Laboratory, the drugs and solvents were placed into plastic bottles and lit inside a burn cell, a small area designated to recreate potential fire scenarios from arson cases.  The fires burned for various times and then scientists suppressed and analyzed the burn cells as if they were actual scenes. Photographs were taken and evidence was collected from all over the room. 

Evidence from the walls was only analyzed for drug evidence and not ignitable liquids evidence. Researchers heated up a can containing evidence from the “one-pot-meth-lab” water bottle and the floor, along with two halves of a cut carbon strip, to absorb any suspected accelerant and drug evidence.  ATF kept one half of the carbon strip to analyze for ignitable liquids and OSU took the other half to analyze for the presence of methamphetamine.  The scientists soaked the carbon strips in a chemical solvent (such as pentane) to extract the arson-meth evidence and then analyzed the extracted solution using gas chromatography mass spectrometry.

Figure 2.  Mass spectra of a) diethyl ether and b) methamphetamine that scientists would look for when analyzing samples. Credit: Kimito Funatsu and Megan Showalter from MassBank of North America.

Additionally, to simulate analysis across police departments, OSU and ATF sent a few carbon strips previously tested for ignitable liquids out to two different crime laboratories in Oklahoma. The labs analyzed the strips using two different, but both standard, operating protocols typically employed for actual casework. Their methods produced positive identification of diethyl ether, camping fuel and methamphetamine (Fig 2), concluding that illicit drug and arson activity happened at the location. Notably, a technician would not need to differentiate between a starting reagent for meth or an ignitable liquid if they identified diethyl ether or camping fuel.  While in this scenario, these chemicals were not intentionally used to start a fire, like in the case of arson, they were being used for an illegal activity, meth production. Thus, the perpetrator can be charged with both drug production and arson, as long as a fire was started.    

This study and the analyzed evidence for ignitable liquids demonstrated how technicians could determine the presence of the camping fuel, diethyl ether and meth-related chemicals in a simulated meth-lab-fire-scene. All but one sample tested by OSU had a positive result for methamphetamine or pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient used to produce methamphetamine.  The samples sent to the crime labs also detected these same ingredients. The presence of both methamphetamine and pseudophredrine after the analysis of ignitable liquids suggests that one sample can be used for both sets of testing. Therefore, not one, but two important types of evidence can be collected from a fire scene suspected to be a meth lab, as long as the carbon strips are cut in half before absorption. 

The detection of methamphetamine and ignitable liquids does not absolutely prove that a clandestine lab was there, but it does provide evidence to support that hypothesis and potentially lead to both drug production and arson charges down the line.  

TitleCollection and analysis of fire debris evidence to detect methamphetamine, pseudoephedrine, and ignitable liquids in fire scenes at suspected clandestine laboratories
AuthorsMatthew K. Green, Raymond J. Kuk, Jarrad R. Wagner
JournalForensic Chemistry

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