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Danger lurking in the dumpster

October 11, 2010
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This summer, a good carwash operator learned a very scary lesson the hard way. He was generous enough to share his story on the Internet, and I contacted him to have his permission to share it here.

On Wednesday, August 13, “Joe” went to his carwash to clean the bays and discovered his trash was full with big white kitchen bags. A little annoyed, he thought he would open the top bag and dig around the surface until he found an envelope to identify the dumper.

But instead of finding an envelope, “Joe” got a nasty surprise. A large cloud of grayish dust blossomed from the bag, and he inhaled some as he backed away. Little did he know then, but “Joe” had just inhaled acids from the production of methamphetamine.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, methamphetamine is a highly addictive drug. Basically, anyone with a high school understanding of chemistry can produce meth in a homemade lab. It is especially a problem in the West and Midwest, where meth is second only to alcohol and marijuana as the drug most frequently abused.

One of the reasons “Joe” has requested his identity be kept anonymous is because he is embarrassed of the way he handled the incident. While working for his state’s department of transportation, “Joe” was trained to look for signs of meth production. As a DOT worker, he was told to look for coolers that had been duct taped shut. In this case, an ordinary kitchen trash bag didn’t seem to pose a threat.

It is estimated that one pound of methamphetamine yields five pounds of hazardous waste. Some of the common ingredients used in meth production are starting fluid (ether), paint thinner, freon, acetone, brake cleaner (toluene), drain cleaner (sodium hydroxide), and battery acid (sulfuric acid).

According to the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of Berkley in California, the fumes from meth waste can cause itching and burn the eyes, throat, and lungs if inhaled. Physical contact with the chemicals or piles of waste can burn the skin and cause very severe respiratory damage.

Six days after he encountered the gray dust, “Joe” went in for a check-up. His heart rate was over 90 beats per minute (it’s normally around 65 to 68) and he learned that he may have holes developing in his lungs from the acid burning through.

There are a few ways to identify trash from a meth lab. First, it might emit strong chemical odors — although you should never directly or closely inhale the suspect trash. The aroma may remind you of cat urine, ether, ammonia, nail polish remover (acetone), or similar chemicals.

If you can see items in the trash pile, look for signs of some of the ingredients used to make meth. For instance, bottles of nail polish remover or starting fluid may be present.

Lastly, if you inhale the fumes, like “Joe” did, the university offers these tips: Move to fresh air. Give artificial respiration if colleague is not breathing. If breathing difficulty occurs, seek medical attention immediately. Remove clothing and flush the skin and/or eyes if there is exposure.

“Joe” hopes for a full recovery, but he will never forget the costly mistake he made that August afternoon. He said he is too ashamed to share his name, but I think he is very brave to share his story and also compassionate to consider his fellow operators.

Please, the next time you empty your trash or think you will avenge yourself on a dumper, wear a face mask and approach with caution. It could save your life.

Editor’s Note: The second part of Steve Gaudreau’s article on managing an express exterior chain of carwashes will be available in the December 2008 issue.


Kate Carr is the editor in chief of Professional Carwashing & Detailing® Magazine and would like to extend another thank you to our anonymous reader for sharing his story. You can send your grumblings, compliments and suggestions to kcarr@carwash.com.

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