When the acrid stench of battery acid, ether and drain cleaner burns Neal Smither’s nostrils, he knows he’s arrived at work.
Smither, president and owner of Orinda-based Crime Scene Cleaners, has mopped up after countless murders and suicides, but nothing compares to walking into a methamphetamine lab, he said.
“The whole place just smells like rocket fuel,” he said.
Meth labs are commonly clandestine locations in houses, apartment buildings, motels, wooded areas, even vehicles. “Cookers” use common household chemicals, such as cough medicine, that contain pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, to make the drug.
Each meth lab is a potential hazardous waste site, local authorities said.
“I’ve cleaned a meth lab in the cab of a truck parked on the side of the highway, in closets and in hotel rooms,” Smither said.
Smither, who said he has sanitized around a dozen former meth labs in San Mateo County, said more than one landlord has been angry when told what a cleanup involves.
After a property is red-tagged by a fire department, Smither’s crew moves in to remove and destroy porous belongings — clothing, cabinetry, kitchen appliances, carpets and carpet pads.
“Most companies will rip the place up all the way to the studs,” he said.
While the cleanup itself can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $20,000, a homeowner can lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in destroyed valuables. Many times, kitchen chemists abandon the property and stick taxpayers with the cost.
“If you have Mr. and Mrs. Smith living in a $5,000 trailer and they have $50,000 worth of product, you know they’re going to walk away from it,” Smither said. “Inevitably, the county is going to eat the cost.”