In September, an apartment at Vista View Apartments in Charleston, W.Va., caught fire after a methamphetamine lab in one of the units exploded. People in at least a dozen units could not go back into their homes immediately because the units had to be tested for meth contamination.

In San Francisco recently, a meth lab explosion started a fire that burned down an entire home and blew into the wall of an adjoining townhome. Explosions and fires can cause thousands of dollars in damage to apartment properties. They raise liability issues by putting other tenants at risk. And even if you discover a lab’s existence before an explosion, proper cleanup—and you will want to do it right to avoid fines or lawsuits from future residents—can set you back thousands of dollars.

Perhaps you have invested in a property in a depressed neighborhood, or you’ve heard that properties in adjacent areas have been tagged as meth labs. Maybe tenants have complained of odd smells or fellow tenants acting suspicious. Could a unit at your property be the site of a meth lab? You can find out a lot easier than you think.

Observe your residents

First, take a good look at tenants on your property. Make a note of what residents look like when they move in. Many people who manufacture meth are also users of this powerfully addictive drug. Chronic physical effects that you might notice include weight loss, tremors, burned lips, oily skin, and sores. Meth users often look older than they actually are.

“Observing tenants can tip off landlords that something is wrong,” said Dr. Lawrence McGlynn, director of the Stanford/Santa Clara County Methamphetamine Task Force in Palo Alto, Calif. He is also a clinical assistant professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. “If tenants are really skinny, look very pale, or are losing their teeth, you should be concerned.” Owners should also closely observe guests of tenants with such symptoms. Do they appear to park elsewhere and only visit for a short time? Do guests come and go at all hours? If the answers are ‘yes,’ you may have cause for concern.

One doesn’t have to enter the unit to notice possible signs of a meth lab. Residents manufacturing meth often cover windows with heavy blankets or tin foil. Owners and managers may notice that one unit’s garbage tends to pile up quickly in garbage bins.

“Oftentimes, people involved with these labs will not use the regular garbage service, but take garbage out in bags in the middle of the night,” said McGlynn. “Sometimes, they’ll dump it somewhere else to avoid suspicion. A unit that produces very little garbage is also suspicious.”

Other signs

Owners or maintenance staff should be on the lookout for large numbers of empty medicine packets in garbage. Pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient in cold medicines and nasal decongestants, is a prime ingredient in the manufacture of meth. Look for large numbers of matchbooks in the trash with the striker plates missing. That material is also used in the manufacture of the drug. Containers of urine in trash bins are also a problem. Meth cookers reconstitute the drug quite easily from the urine of meth users.

One of the most classic signs of a meth lab is the smell. In some cases, residents or apartment staff may notice odd smells. The most potent form of meth is made from anhydrous ammonia and lithium metal (the latter comes from batteries). This type of meth lab emanates the smell of cat urine. The resident may have one cat or more to cover up the real source of the odor. These labs are particularly dangerous because of the flammable nature of the gases involved. Other odors that should raise red flags are “auto body shop” smells, a pungent vinegar-like smell, and an ether-like smell (McGlynn refers to the latter as “hospital odor”).

Talk to your people

Oftentimes, maintenance personnel are the first people to see the possible signs of a meth lab, and they may not realize it. Talk with your staff. Warn them of what to look for when entering a unit to make repairs. In most cases, owners are required to give residents sufficient notice before entering a unit. That means by the time you enter the apartment, residents will have tried to clean up signs of meth manufacture. Still, evidence can remain, such as odors. Also, look for stains in toilets, sinks, and bathtubs. Meth made from iodine and matchbooks leaves reddish-yellow stains. Tell maintenance staff not to turn on or off any lights in the unit if they suspect the unit is a lab. They should leave the unit immediately, since they may have been contaminated by meth residue.

“Sometimes a light switch is connected to a fan, like in a bathroom, for example,” said McGlynn. “A spark is generated, and that could lead to a very powerful explosion. The ammonia labs produce very flammable gases.”

If you suspect meth is being used or manufactured in your unit, call the local division of the Drug Enforcement Agency or your local police department. If it appears that the unit is contaminated by meth, then you should abide by laws which establish how to clean the unit; otherwise, you could face strict fines. Property owners can contact their local fire department’s hazardous materials unit or the local office of the Environment Protection Agency to get information on the cleanup process, said Jeanne Garcia, public information officer with California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control. Authorities will generally inform a local health official, who will be able to guide you through the necessary steps to clean a contaminated unit.