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Friday chemical safety round up

Chemical health and safety news from the past few weeks:

Court watch

  • On Nov. 20, UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran had a status check with the judge regarding felony charges of labor code violations that led to the death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji. The result of that status check was another status check scheduled for Jan. 10, 2014. Harran’s preliminary hearing concluded on April 26. We’re going on two years since charges were filed on Dec. 27, 2011, and five years since the Dec. 29, 2008, fire.
  • On Nov. 1, former UC Davis chemist David Snyder was arraigned on felony charges of reckless disposal of hazardous waste, possession of a destructive device or explosive, possession of materials with intent to make a destructive device, and possession of firearms on university property. The charges relate to an explosion in his campus apartment nearly one year ago. Snyder’s preliminary hearing concluded on Oct. 10. Snyder is scheduled for a trial-setting conference on March 17, 2014, and a jury trial to start on March 24, 2014.

Tweets of the month from @Free_Radical1:

Other items of interest

  • The president-elect of ACS, Diane Grob Schmidt, is currently the chair of the Division of Chemical Health & Safety
  • NIOSH released new recommendations for controlling worker exposure to nanomaterials
  • BioRAFT will hold a webinar on Proactive EHS Management & Communications on Dec. 12
  • Residents near an Allenco Energy oil field in Southern California have been complaining for three years about fumes from the site. At Sen. Barbara Boxer’s request, EPA investigators visited the site in October. “I’ve been to oil and gas production facilities throughout the region, but I’ve never had an experience like that before,” [EPA regional administrator Jared] Bumenfeld said. “We suffered sore throats, coughing and severe headaches that lingered for hours.” No word on what’s happened since.
  • Also in California, state regulators are supposed to match hazardous material origin paperwork with what arrives at disposal sites. They don’t. “These so-called lost loads include more than 20,000 tons of lead, a neurotoxin; 520 tons of benzene, a carcinogen; and 355 tons of methyl ethyl ketone, a flammable solvent some in the industry call ‘methyl ethyl death.’” (I’m curious to know what chemists think of that nickname. It’s flammable, yes, but it’s not ranked category 1 for any GHS hazard class.)
  • And, er, ALSO in California, a waste mystery: “more than 100 metric tons of the banned pesticide DDT and industrial compounds known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, have vanished from one of the country’s most hazardous sites, almost a 90% drop in just five years. Scientists are at a loss to explain the decline across the 17-square-mile site, which sits about 200 feet below the ocean surface and two miles off the Los Angeles County coast.” The chemicals wound up there from industrial waste dumped into sewers.

Fires and explosions

Leaks, spills, and other exposures

  • A 20,000-gal tank of liquid…something…overpressurized and launched itself through the roof of American Vinyl Company in Florida; one employee died and was found covered in a yellow liquid, while five others were injured
  • More than a pound of mercury spilled onto the ground and into a deep well at an Archer Daniels Midland site in Iowa, “when a contractor was pulling a submersible pump from the well and the mercury seal in the pump broke”
  • Sulfuric acid leaked from a Solvay plant in California, the cause was a malfunctioning scrubber; 13 people in the area were treated for nose and throat irritation and vomiting
  • Chlorine dioxide leaked at Nucor Steel in Arkansas; 18 employees and contractors were treated for exposure
  • Two workers at dental implant manufacturer Hiossen in Pennsylvania were pouring nitric acid from one container into another when some sort of reaction occurred; the workers were wearing gloves but no other PPE, and suffered burns to their airways and upper bodies
  • Gluteraldehyde spilled at an office building in Texas; the chemical was possibly intended to disinfect health care equipment that cannot be heat sterilized

University incidents

Not covered (usually): meth labs; incidents involving floor sealants, cleaning solutions, or pool chemicals; transportation spills; things that happen at recycling centers (dispose of your waste properly, people!); and fires from oil, natural gas, or other fuels

Nanotechnology: Small science can come with big safety risks

Contributed by Dow Lab Safety Academy

Many scientists these days are excited about nanomaterials research, and with good reason. The novel properties of these ultra-small materials can lead to new and exceptional applications in various industries, such as targeted drug delivery in the pharmaceutical industry.

But while there’s an infinite world of “small” discoveries waiting for talented and interested people, there are also health and safety challenges that are unique to working with nanomaterials. The properties that make nanomaterials desirable can also change their potential hazards.

For example, materials at the nanoscale can have altered uptake and distribution within the human body. This means that they could be absorbed by the body faster, resulting in greater exposure, and they may travel to internal organs that were not previously accessible to the larger scale of the same material.

Here are some best practices for working safely with nanomaterials.

  • Be cautious when reviewing hazard information. Question any health hazard information provided for bulk material. Hazards listed on safety data sheets may or may not be the same for small, ultrafine particles.
  • Assess potential exposure when planning your research. Conduct qualitative exposure assessments for various aspects of the project. Define which tasks may potentially expose workers to nanomaterials, the dustiness of the material, how it will be used, how much will be used, and the duration and frequency of the task.
  • Keep materials off your body and out of the air. Ensure that nanomaterials remain off your skin and out of your lungs and eyes. Ventilation systems capture and remove airborne nanomaterials before they are inhaled by workers. A fume hood is an excellent choice. For larger scale operations, use ventilated enclosures, local exhaust ventilation, or other types of ventilation.
  • Know when to opt for added protection. A fume hood, goggles, lab coat, and polymeric gloves are sufficient for most small-scale research. However, for larger scale operations, using respiratory protection with a P-100 filter and disposable suits is recommended.

For more on this topic, watch the Nanoparticle Safety video in the Specialized Topics module at the Dow Lab Safety Academy. The Dow Lab Safety Academy is a free digital learning environment that seeks to enhance awareness of safety practices in research laboratories.

And to learn a bit about nanoparticle characterization, see a recent story by C&EN’s Lauren Wolf, Federal Lab Helps Clients Move Prospective Nanomedicines Into Clinical Trials.

Disclaimer: See Dow’s Terms of Use at http://www.dow.com/homepage/term.htm.

I know. Enough with the bad news, already.

Which do you want to hear first, the good news or the bad news?

The bad news, you say?

Okay, here it is. The bad news—wait for it—is that there is no good news. Cue the trombone.

The surplus of scientists at the bachelor’s and doctoral levels has been a hot discussion topic recently, as well as in the past.

Last week, there was an appearance of even more articles focused on how badly the Great Recession has hurt new college graduates, at all levels. The scope of this phenomenon appears to extend beyond science, and beyond North America or the EU. What follows is a quick overview of three articles on various aspects of this topic.

A devalued bachelor’s degree

First, there’s the provocatively titled “It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk,” a New York Times article by Catherine Rampell. The opening statement provides a startling and depressing premise:

The college degree is becoming the new high school diploma: the new minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one, for getting even the lowest-level job.

An Atlanta law office is presented as a microcosm of what’s being seen more broadly. At this firm, the minimum prerequisite for employment, regardless of position, is a bachelor’s degree. This includes office administrators, file clerks and even their in-office courier.

Evidence is provided that this situation is not unique to this one law firm:

Economists have referred to this phenomenon as “degree inflation,” and it has been steadily infiltrating America’s job market. Across industries and geographic areas, many other jobs that didn’t used to require a diploma — positions like dental hygienists, cargo agents, clerks and claims adjusters — are increasingly requiring one, according to Burning Glass, a company that analyzes job ads from more than 20,000 online sources, including major job boards and small- to midsize-employer sites.

The shortage of scientists is nonexistent

Returning to the sciences—in spite of the data supporting the premise of a glut of newly graduated scientists, there has been chatter bemoaning the opposite.

Continue reading →

The “10K BA” — Is it possible in chemistry?

Are you getting the value you expected out of your chemistry education?

twocharts450Earlier this week, Chemjobber blogged about the regrettable employment situation for chemists. The centerpiece of the post was a graphic, which originally appeared in a Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report on 2012 employment numbers. The figure represented the unemployment numbers, broken down by highest level of education completed and the associated wages for those employed in each group.

Chemjobber amended the graphic with both the ACS member unemployment numbers (also by degree), plus the BLS numbers in the category “chemists and material scientists.” The result is powerful. Chemjobber summed it up:

As you can note, chemists come out worse in every single apples-to-apples comparison on all equivalent degree holders.

Not. Good.

A further irony is found in the title of the original graphic, which Chemjobber retained: “Education Pays.” Well, yes, if you’re employed, your salary will generally increase with level of education (except for the slight dropoff from “Professional degree” to “Doctoral degree”).

However, if you have the misfortune of being among the unemployed—the numbers are even worse for recent graduates—your return on investment is currently zero. This adds insult to injury, particularly if you attended an expensive private institution and have a seemingly insurmountable student loan debt to pay off. “Education Pays” then sounds derisive.

The soaring cost of higher education was the subject of a recent New York Times op-ed piece, entitled “My Valuable, Cheap College Degree,” by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and former professor at Syracuse University.

The title refers to an effort to provide more affordable higher education opportunities:

One idea gaining currency is the $10,000 college degree — the so-called 10K-B.A. — which apparently was inspired by a challenge to educators from Bill Gates, and has recently led to efforts to make it a reality by governors in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin, as well as by a state assemblyman in California.

To achieve these cost cuts, there is a reliance on distance learning, such as massive online open courses (MOOC) and other formats. Understandably, this goal has been greeted with a fair amount of skepticism:

Some critics see it as an invitation to charlatans and diploma mills. Even supporters often suggest that this is just an idea to give poor people marginally better life opportunities.

Continue reading →

From the archives—a surplus of PhDs

Okay, a couple of topics to cover today, and they are related.

First, if you haven’t done so already, you should check out The Watch Glass, a Tumblr which contains excerpts from the C&EN Archives. This endeavor is curated by recent JAEP guest poster, Deirdre Lockwood. Although The Watch Glass is only a couple of weeks old, there have already been some very interesting nostalgic snapshots of chemists and chemistry from the past.

This inspired me to have my own peek at the archives and see what interesting things I might find. It didn’t take long. I’d like to highlight one discovery in particular, a small article entitled “Ph.D. outlook: too many for too few jobs.” Hmmm, doesn’t that sound familiar?

Yes, but here’s the kicker. The publication date of this article: August 13, 1979.

“What? 1979? Surely there must be some mistake! That’s a current topic!” I hear you scream. That, or it’s just the voices. You know, the shrill ones in my head.

Okay, the C&EN archives are by subscription only. That is a bit problematic, because not all readers of this blog have access, whether they’re ACS members or not. I had to wait for the library to email a pdf from scanned microfiche (ask your parents or advisor). Fortunately, the article is short, and the abstract, which is viewable to all, contains roughly half the content, from which you can get the gist. It begins:

The fourth in a series of employment reports from the National Science Foundation has been issued. The report concludes that the number of science and engineering Ph.D.’s in the labor force will increase nearly 50% by 1987.

Well, that’s quite a large increase. That’s good, though, right? The result of a productive American education system. U-S-A! U-S-A!!

The only hitch is that the number of traditional employment positions available to these Ph.D.’s will increase only 35% over the same period.

Continue reading →

On the Continually Bleak Chemistry Job Market

You’ve probably seen the numbers.

On August 3rd, the July unemployment figures for the US were widely reported. Relatively stagnant, again, with an overall unemployment rate of 8.3%

Last month, here at C&EN, Rudy Baum presented his take on unemployment figures for ACS members, which fell from 4.6% in March 2011 to 4.2% for March 2012. He pointed out that this rate was still “well below” the national unemployment rate, which was at 8.2% in March 2012.

This was followed by a commentary by Madeleine Jacobs, CEO and Executive Director of the ACS.

She expressed concern for her membership by stating that “those unemployed chemists are no longer solving critical challenges and creating jobs to ensure sufficient energy, clean water, and food while protecting the environment and curing diseases. Unemployment has both a human and an economic face.”

She was prompted to speak out by Brian Vastag’s article in the Washington Post from July 7th, which covered the lack of available jobs in the sciences. Within that article, a chemist, displaced from her position at a pharmaceuticals company, was quoted as advising her high-school aged daughter to avoid pursuing a career in science. “I tell her, ‘Don’t go into science.’ I’ve made that very clear to her,” she said.

Ms. Jacobs was particularly disturbed by this advice, and felt compelled to call others to action. This is where her initial expression of concern morphed into something else:

“Many people became scientists to fulfill what they saw as their patriotic duty. Let’s not discourage our children who are passionate about chemistry and other sciences by pointing them to other fields.”

She then proceeded to quote, as support for her position, a biology undergraduate, who said, among other things:

“Anyone who would discourage a child who loves math and chemistry from pursuing a career in science because it might be difficult to find employment might not be a scientist for the right reasons.”

I guess there’s room enough for at least two on that particular high horse.

Okay, where to begin?

Among my coworkers, Madeleine Jacobs’ commentary was viewed with something best described as sputtering disbelief. Her rebuke smacks of “nothing worthwhile is ever easy,” or “hard work is its own reward.”

Gee, um, thanks, Mom.

That disbelief was wonderfully crystallized in a subsequent post by Chemjobber. He first pointed out that a straight comparison between the unemployment numbers of ACS members and those of the country at large was a bit misleading:

“Less than 30% of the United States has a college degree. The ACS membership in 2010 consists of 64% Ph.D.s, 18% M.S. holders and 18% bachelors’ degree holders.”

He offered a comparison that still isn’t perfect, but is much better, by limiting the comparison of unemployment numbers to ACS members and nonmembers with college degrees. To summarize—if you break it down by degree, ACS members have higher unemployment than the college educated public at large. Continue reading →

Developing laboratory safety certification

Responding to a request from several former ACS presidents, the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety is attempting to develop an online laboratory safety certification program aimed at chemistry graduate students. The program ideally would address longstanding complaints from industry that Ph.D. programs do not adequately educate students to work safely in industrial research and development laboratories. A well-planned and peer-reviewed online certification program could be part of the solution to this training gap.

The development cost for online training programs, according to an informal survey of commercial online training providers, is approximately $20,000 for each presentation hour of this type of safety course. This means that developing an 8- to 10-hour course with about a dozen training modules would cost $160,000 to $200,000.

The division is now facing the following questions and would welcome input from Safety Zone readers:

  • How might costs be lowered? What work could be done by volunteers rather than paid consultants?
  • Does ACS have the resources to develop the program without using a training provider?
  • Several organizations are willing to support program development: the ACS Corporate Associates, National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, and Council for Chemical Research. Are there others that might be interested?
  • Is there sufficient demand to warrant developing the program? Can it meet industry’s needs?
  • What topics should be covered, and what is a realistic amount of time to commit for effective training?
  • Is taking an online course and passing tests sufficient for certification or should there be other components?

Related post: Teaching safety to chemical engineers

Teaching laboratory safety

Over at Endless Possibilities today, Katherine Haxton, a chemistry lecturer at the UK’s Keele University, discusses the safety talks that she’s giving to students at the start of the term. She asks:

Another thing that struck me as I was preparing the safety talks is how few undergrad lab safety talks there are available on the internet – do we all just hide them away in the dark recesses of our virtual learning environments? Are we scared to make them public just in case something happens that the talk didn’t cover? I would have thought that prospective students and their families, and those of current students might quite like the idea of being able to see the safety requirements set out somewhere. Just a thought. And where can we actually share best practice for undergraduate lab safety?

I know that the Journal of Chemical Education and the Journal of Chemical Health & Safety both publish papers related to lab safety education (and papers on some of the programs I wrote about last year appeared in JCHAS over the summer), but does anyone have ideas for faster, less formal dialogue in this area? If people have some good suggestions, perhaps this a project that the ACS Safety Culture Task Force would consider.