Boston College student injured in lab explosion

A Boston College graduate student reportedly suffered minor injuries Saturday morning when whatever she was working on blew up. Key points culled from news reports over the weekend, plus ChemBark:

  • The injured student is Hee Yeon Cho, who received an ACS Divison of Organic Chemistry fellowship last year for work on “borylative multicomponent coupling reactions and the chemical synthesis of carbon nanotubes.” According to the ACS page, she works for organic chemistry professors James P. Morken and Lawrence T. Scott.
  • Cho was working with thionyl chloride, SOCl2 (current Sigma Aldrich MSDS available here). Thionyl chloride reacts violently with water, bases, some metals, and a few other things (go read).
  • Thionyl chloride is used to make meth! And mustard gas! But also a lot of other stuff–it’s a standard reagent for preparing alkyl and acyl chlorides–and while we’ve all heard stories of chemists making things for, er, personal purposes, I rather doubt Cho was making meth or mustard gas. (I have no idea how the local news media came up with those two particular examples. I also share ChemBark’s skepticism that Cho was doing her experiment in a beaker.)
  • Cho was, however, working alone. And when her experiment blew up, she left the lab to go home and tend to her injuries. ChemBark reported on what this meant to her labmates:

    This was such a disaster on so many levels… It’s been one hell of a day. Why she left we still have no idea but walking into a lab with glass, blood, a demolished hood and a missing person this morning was enough for me

  • And news media describe what this meant for first responders: They not only turned up at the lab, but they had to track down Cho and decontaminate her, plus check her car and apartment, closing down a couple of roads in the process.
  • Cho’s injuries were reportedly minor–cuts on her face and burns on her hands. News video shows her holding a towel to her cheek. The “minor” burns might change, though, since I know from my own experience that burns can take a couple of days to fully reveal themselves (although my experience is with heat burns, not chemical). The fact that she seemingly did not get in a safety shower and instead may have delayed treatment until she got home wouldn’t have helped.

The moral of the story so far: Don’t work alone. If something happens, a coworker can call for help while you get in the closest safety shower. Do not leave the scene.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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8 Comments

  1. If you are working with something that reacts violently with water and have an accident like this- would not getting into a safety shower (presumably containing water) be dangerous?

  2. @C – Although it may seem counterintuitive at first, flushing with large amounts of water is the appropriate way to deal with chemical exposure, even with something water reactive. In the words of one safety expert, it’s about “dilution, dilution, dilution.” Keep in mind that we’re not talking about just splashing at something–a shower is supposed to run for 15 min at 20 gal/min and an eyewash station for 15 min at 0.4 gal/min (http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/safety_haz/emer_showers.html).

  3. Water reactive chemicals (including thionyl chloride) must be removed from the skin quickly and large amounts of water is the best option at this time. If the chemical is not quickly removed, it will react with moisture in the skin and cause more injury. Water has a large heat capacity and the combination of the dilution, mechanical removal and the capability to absorb a large quantity of heat without a significant temperature rise helps protect the victim from further injury.

  4. Thank you! I had always wondered about that.

  5. And I must add, the internet is a very small place. Dr. Langerman I corresponded with you briefly via email awhile back regarding the type of work that you do (and my interest in it). You were very helpful in providing information and advice to an undergrad like myself. I have taken your advice to heart and am planning on getting my hazmat certification (week long class offered nearby) while I am in school just to see if this interest is a long term one. I will follow my academic interests in chemistry wherever they lead until I have a Phd.

  6. **So I must thank you again for that. =)

  7. “. Why she left we still have no idea”
    uh, perhaps because “Cho’s injuries were reportedly minor”

    Closing down roads, talk about overreaction…

  8. I’m pretty sure the focus on nerve agents and meth came from the reporters doing some hard hitting wikipedia research. Once one finds out you can highlight thionyl chloride’s ‘exciting’ application in making nerve agents, you can ignore the more extensively discussed synthetic uses from the same article.
    The initial CNN article titled the accident a “blast” (http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/06/25/massachussetts.college.lab.blast/index.html?hpt=hp_bn1). No doubt there was an explosion, but just shattering a beaker that causes some cuts hardly meets the usual connotation of a “blast.” It’s sensationalism keying in on people’s fears, especially of chemicals.

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