The smelly stuff

Having spent many years working in a manufacturing laboratory that stocked about 10,000 chemicals, I have a deep appreciation for the unique smells associated with organic compounds. A recent odor discussion on the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety e-mail list, in which a poster is attempting to locate and identify a particular “smelly socks” smell, has been fascinating.

It got me thinking, though, about how many different chemicals we’re potentially exposed to in a laboratory environment. Having spent more time recently in an industrial setting where respirators are commonly used, I wonder about the exposure hazards of chemical storerooms and open laboratories. Obviously, if you exceed the odor threshhold, you’re exposed to the particular chemical. And regardless of policies regarding the use of fumehoods for chemical handling, we’ve all experienced workplace odors and thus have all been exposed to low concentrations of a variety of assumably toxic compounds. Does the old saying, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” apply here? Most of the chemists I know are both generally healthy and typically long-lived. Is there anything to the theory that extremely low concentration chemical exposures help our immune systems? Obviously there is no magic number below which exposures are guaranteed safe. How do you feel about this? Why don’t we see more respirator use in chemical laboratory settings?

Author: Russ Phifer

Russ is a professional volunteer, active in ACS since 1982. He is the only History major (College of Wooster, 1974) to Chair an ACS Committee (Chemical Safety), Technical Division (CHAS), and Task Force (Laboratory Chemical & Waste Management). In his spare time he is Executive Director of the National Registry of Certified Chemists (NRCC), EH&S Manager for a printing plant (Chiyoda America, Morgantown, PA), and run his own environmental health & safety consulting and training firm (WC Environmental, LLC). Also active in local politics, he nonetheless enjoys spending time with his wife Molly and their five children.

Share This Post On


  1. Respirator use should not be necessary if one works safely in a well-designed lab. One problem I’ve noted is the build-up of odors in refrigerators and freezers in which organic chemicals are stored. Perhaps they could be designed to automatically purge the interior with small volume of air and to vent the displaced air to a fume hood.

  2. I agree respirators shouldn’t be needed in labs – my point was that lab workers are potentially exposed to many chemicals (and yes, refrigerators and freezers can be terrible!), and workers in an industrial setting with similar exposures are protected by respirator use. Ventilation is certainly the key, whether it be properly venting odors from refrigerators & freezers or by proper use of hoods and ventilation systems. I think we will see much more information in the coming year on laboratory ventilation, as there are several concentrated efforts out there to address this issue.

  3. Exposure to chemicals is a condition of employment for chemists. Overexposure, that being exposure in excess of recognized exposure limits, is NOT a condition of employment. It is the employer’s responsibility to maintain exposures to less recognized occupational exposure limits.

    Most laboratories are not equipped to take on the regulatory burdens associated with respirator use. Those include, but are not limited to: Physician evaluation (employer paid, of course), respirator choice, written risk assessment requiring respirators, annual training, annual fit testing, program maintenance, including monthly testing and inspection. The cost, and not just the dollars, can be crushing to do it right.


  4. Good point, Harry, as long as exposures are kept below published limits. Hopefully those who set those limits know what they’re doing… but what about those employees (or students) who have reactions to lower exposures? Or additive effects of multiple chemicals? Are they entitled to additional protection? Is there a regulatory requirement that applies here? I think so. I agree it may be somewhat onerous for employers, but the general duty clause could apply.

  5. Does not the HSE acts regulate for these kind of issues?

  6. Not really, Craig, for a lot of reasons. As you know, students are not employees, so no OSHA laws apply to them. It is employers who are regulated… and there has been general failure of regulators, corporate management, and labor to come to agreement on exposure standards. In addition, established PELs are based on 8 hour time weighted average. Most don’t have published STELs (15 minutes), which might be more appropriate for laboratories.

    The levels I’m suggesting are well below PELs, but some individuals experience additive effects from being exposed to a multitude of aromatic compounds. Have you ever encountered a worker or visitor with MCS? Multiple chemical syndrome (there are several synonyms) affects an estimated 25,000 Americans. Does the adage Harry suggests still apply? Is exposure to chemicals a condition of employment? Regardless of regulations, doesn’t the general duty clause apply? Protect employees from health hazards?

  7. I just have to chime in here, Russ:

    Of course the General Duty Clause applies. However, you’re not applying it correctly. The first part of the OSHA General Duty Clause states:

    “Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from RECOGNIZED hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

    The key word that is being confused here is RECOGNIZED. It does not say “ALL” hazards, or “POTENTIAL” hazards, it clearly states “recognized hazards.” What are those recognized hazards when it comes to chemical exposure? OSHA sets them in subpart Z to the general industry standards, the published PELs.

    We all know that the PELs are, generally speaking, outdated and that other, more modern occupational exposure limits exist, e.g. TLVs, WEELs, RELs etc. However, these do not have the force of law behind them. An employer cannot be penalized by the government for failure to control exposures to less than the TLV or WEEL. Any penalty to an employer there must result from tort litigation.

    Note also that nowhere does it state in subpart Z that exposure to at or below the assigned PELs are “safe” or “harmless.” Likewise, ACIGH clearly states in their assignment of the TLVs in the Special Note to the User “These values are NOT fine lines between safe and dangerous conditions…” and further states in the Statement of Position “The TLVs and BEIs represent conditions under which ACGIH believes that _nearly_ all workers may be repeatedly exposed without adverse health effects.” “Nearly” emphasis was mine.

    I maintain that chemical exposure IS a condition of employment to a chemist. Chemical overexposure is not.

    A person with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (Syndrome) does not have “right” to be a (bench) chemist. If they have a condition which precludes chemical exposure – they simply need to find a different career – one that does not involve chemical exposure.

    (also – there are “chemical” jobs that do not involve chemical exposure: How about computational quantum chemistry or statistical mechanics?)

  8. I yield to the distinguished industrial hygienist from Illinois.