While some people say methamphetamine has no odor, others claim the powerful stimulant drug has a subtle chemical smell reminiscent of ammonia or acetone. The scent of meth stems from the chemical ingredients used to manufacture the illegal drug.
The odor of methamphetamine varies, but vapors released from smoking meth can have an ammonia-like smell similar to glass cleaner or cat urine.
- Cleaning products used in hospitals
- Burning plastic
- Something sweet
It may also smell like acetone, which is found in nail polish remover, or have a sulfur smell similar to rotten eggs.
What Is Meth?
Methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant that can be smoked, snorted, injected or swallowed. The drug causes a host of troubling effects, including extreme agitation, aggression and insomnia.
Meth addiction can develop rapidly, and chronic crystal meth use can lead to weight loss, paranoia, hallucinations and other types of psychotic behavior.
Behavioral changes and deterioration of a person’s physical appearance are the usually the most noticeable signs of meth use, but some people say they can detect meth by its smell.
However faint or strong, meth’s chemical aroma stems from its ingredients — and the manufacturing process often creates noxious fumes.
Meth is made by combining a variety of household products and agricultural chemicals with ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, a decongestant found in over-the-counter cold remedies such as Sudafed.
- Drain cleaner
- Lithium batteries
- Starter fluid
- Table or rock salt
- Anhydrous ammonia
While much of the methamphetamine sold on the streets is trafficked from Mexico, meth is also produced on a smaller scale in the United States by clandestine lab operators, who operate their labs out of homes, sheds, hotel rooms and other locations.
What Does a Meth Lab Smell Like?
Meth labs often emit a powerful ammonia-like odor that smells similar to cat urine, window cleaner or fertilizer.
- Paint thinner or varnish
- A sour or vinegary scent
- Hair or nail salons (acetone)
The foul fumes associated with meth labs are toxic and can remain for months after a manufacturing site is abandoned or shut down.
Dangers of Meth Lab Exposure
Exposure to the chemicals in a meth lab can cause serious health problems. Inhaling the toxic fumes can cause breathing problems, headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, confusion and other symptoms.
Ingredients used to make the drug are highly corrosive and may cause intense burns on the skin and mucous membranes of the nose, throat and eyes.
Studies have shown that police and first responders are seven to 15 times more likely to become sick when they come in contact with an active meth lab compared to an inactive lab. Because of these health dangers, first responders must wear gas masks and hazmat suits when investigating or dismantling sites where the drug is made.
Children are particularly susceptible to the ill effects of meth manufacturing. They can suffer from poisoning, burns and respiratory problems caused by meth exposure. Some develop liver, kidney, heart or brain damage.
Exposure to chemicals from a meth lab can also damage a child’s immune system and trigger cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma. Children can absorb meth through second-hand smoke and fumes. They can also be exposed to surfaces in the home that were contaminated by meth residue.
Just because you can’t smell meth doesn’t mean it’s not there. Studies have shown that sites where methamphetamine is manufactured can remain contaminated for weeks, months and possibly even years.
Residue from meth production can seep into carpet, furniture, drapes and drywall, and it can easily be absorbed through the skin. Symptoms of exposure to meth residue include headaches, nausea and vomiting, eye irritation and respiratory problems.
Smoking meth can also cause environmental contamination, but second-hand smoke is less toxic than manufacturing meth. A 2016 study published in the journal Drug Testing and Analysis found that trace quantities of smoked methamphetamine remained on a variety of household surfaces for up to four weeks.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration logged more than 63,000 methamphetamine lab incidents related to lab and equipment seizures and dumpsites between 2010 and 2014.
DrugRehab.com 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.
As a former journalist and a registered nurse, Amy draws on her clinical experience, compassion and storytelling skills to provide insight into the disease of addiction and treatment options. Amy has completed the American Psychiatric Nurses Association’s course on Effective Treatments for Opioid Use Disorder and continuing education on Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT). Amy is an advocate for patient- and family-centered care. She previously participated in Moffitt Cancer Center’s patient and family advisory program and was a speaker at the Institute of Patient-and Family-Centered Care’s 2015 national conference.
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