COLUMBIA, Mo. — With a rapid increase in production of illegal methamphetamines, farm operators are advised to keep close watch for suspicious activity around their tanks of anhydrous ammonia, law enforcement officials say.

A tank of anhydrous ammonia in an open field can be an invitation to thieves who want it to make illegal methamphetamines.

For the second year in a row, Missouri leads the nation in number of meth raids and seizures. Missouri law enforcement officers put more than 2,700 meth labs out of business in 2002, according the Missouri Highway Patrol.

"Anhydrous ammonia is the only ingredient that meth cooks cannot buy in a grocery store," said Robb Pilkington, hazardous material specialist with the Fire and Rescue Training Institute at the University of Missouri.

"Illegal drug manufacturers damage tanks, cause dangerous release of contents and steal entire tanks to get this material for their cooking operations," he said.

Farmers should not move or use tanks that have been tampered with, he said. A damaged valve could cause a large release. At minus 28 F, anhydrous ammonia can cause severe skin burns, lung damage and blindness.

Pilkington suggests that farmers keep tanks hidden from view and report suspicious activity to law enforcement officers.

Since 1989 the University of Missouri Fire and Rescue Training Institute has taught a class in responding to emergencies that might involve meth labs. In 2002 the institute conducted 22 classes with more than 210 students, mostly firefighters and police, across the state.

"We teach how to recognize an illegal drug facility in responding to a fire or medical emergency. We also teach emergency personnel on how to protect themselves and victims. And we demonstrate how to safely clean up hazardous materials after the emergency," he said.

In the most popular theft method, thieves use a hose to force-fill a 20-pound propane tank, Pilkington warns. "If they overfill the propane tank, the relief valve cannot handle the expanding force of the ammonia, which is greater than for propane. Propane tanks have brass fittings that are not made to handle ammonia."

Missouri also is seeing increased use of picnic coolers and jugs to transport anhydrous ammonia. This is a very dangerous practice, especially for law enforcement officers, because intense vapors and fumes rapidly spread when the cooler is opened, overwhelming anyone in the vicinity.

The meth problem also extends to commercial fertilizer distribution sites where large quantities of anhydrous ammonia are stored, Pilkington said. Distributors fear valve damage could result in large releases.

Robert Thomas is an information specialist with Extension and Ag Information, University of Missouri (573-882–2480 or thomasr@missouri.edu).