From the archives: Chemists lose hands from peroxide explosions
Feb21

From the archives: Chemists lose hands from peroxide explosions

Regarding the inadvertent synthesis of TATP at the University of Bristol, someone commented at “In The Pipeline”: I recall a C&EN story from the early 1980s about a group at K (Kansas or Kentucky?) preparing a batch of 100% H2O2. It exploded during purification and blew off a corner of the building. I vaguely recall a picture of the lab walls completely blown out. I believe they (Kansas? Kentucky?) shut down their chemistry program after that incident before restoring it after a couple of years. I dug into our archives to see if I could find the incident in question. I haven’t been able to find it, but I did dig up some other interesting stories: From July 21, 1952: Chemist Loses Hand in Performic Acid Explosion Five milliliters of performic acid exploded recently at Laval University, Quebec, Canada, tearing off the right hand of a graduate student and smashing all glassware in a radius of 2 to 3 feet. Numerous glass slivers were driven into his skin and into one of his eyes. According to information from the student, A. Weingartshofer-Olmos, and Paul A. Giguere, professor of physical chemistry at Laval, a small receiving flask containing the 5 ml of approximately 90% performic acid was being removed from the still when it detonated for no apparent reason. The acid had been prepared by the addition of 25 grams of 99% hydrogen peroxide to 20 grams of 99% formic acid in the presence of 6.5 grams of concentrated sulfuric acid as catalyst. After two hours for reaching equilibrium, the mixture was distilled under reduced pressure (5 to 10 mm Hg) at 30° to 35° C. This preparation had been performed several times before in the same manner without any mishap. The material was known to be dangerous and adequate precautions were taken. All glassware was thoroughly cleaned in fuming sulfuric acid. The distillation apparatus was entirely assembled through ground glass joints and no lubricant of any sort was used. The still was connected to a dry-ice trap, manometer, and vacuum pump through a length of Tygon tubing. Only 5 to 10 milliliters of the acid was prepared at a time. As nothing unusual had happened while the material was heated for distillation and as the distillate was kept at —10° to — 15° C , the operator felt that the danger period was over. He removed his face shield, pushed aside the two safety screens, and reached for the receiving flask. As he was about to touch the discharge tube to collect a pendant drop, the flask exploded. Like all peroxides and ozonides, performic acid is unstable, since it...

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Protective suit failure lands Canadian lab worker in isolation
Nov10

Protective suit failure lands Canadian lab worker in isolation

An employee of Canada’s national animal health lab is in isolation for 21 days following possible exposure to the Ebola virus, news agencies report. The employee was working with pigs that had been invected with Ebola to test how the disease responds to treatment with immune response proteins, CBC reports. The employee was going through standard decontamination procedures before leaving the lab when he or she noticed a split in the seam of their protective suit. Ebola is spread by direct contact with bodily fluids. “There is no reason to believe the employee involved in Monday’s incident was in contact with the bodily fluids of the infected pig, according to Rebecca Gilman, spokeswoman for the Public Health Agency of Canada,” CNN reports. The incident illustrates why personal protective equipment should not be the only barrier between a lab worker–or the outside world–and possible harm. Multiple approaches are necessary so that a single weakness does not lead to illness or...

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Another biosafety lapse at CDC
Dec31

Another biosafety lapse at CDC

Early last week, news came out that the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention sent live virus internally to a lab not equipped to handle it. One technician was potentially exposed to the virus and is being monitored, but so far she is reportedly showing no signs of the disease. Stuart Nichol, chief of the CDC’s Viral Special Pathogens Branch, attributed the incident to human error, the New York Times reported. Earlier this year, CDC “closed influenza and anthrax research sites and halted all biological materials shipments from its highest level containment labs following safety breaches that endangered dozens of employees,” C&EN reported. The White House Office of Science & Technology Policy subsequently encouraged government and nongovernment labs to do a “safety stand-down” to review safety practices. Here’s CDC’s summary of the results of the...

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Typo may have led to radioactive material leak
Dec09

Typo may have led to radioactive material leak

On Feb. 14, radioactive material leaked from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant nuclear waste repository in New Mexico. The leak was traced to a drum containing a reactive mixture of nitrate salts, an acid neutralizer, and an organic, cellulose-based cat litter used as a sorbent. From an investigation by the Santa Fe New Mexican: In a damning report issued in October, the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General chided [Los Alamos National Laboratory] and its waste packaging subcontractor EnergySolutions for the change from clay-based to organic kitty litter and the use of an acid neutralizer. “This action may have led to an adverse chemical reaction within the drums resulting in serious safety implications,” the report said, referring to the litter change. A lab spokesman said LANL officials recognize deficiencies in the lab’s safety processes were spotlighted by the disaster at WIPP. But LANL has never publicly acknowledged the reason why it switched from clay-based litter to the organic variety believed to be the fuel that fed the intense heat. In internal emails, nuclear waste specialists pondered several theories about the reason for the change in kitty litters before settling on an almost comically simplistic conclusion that has never been publicly discussed: A typographical error in a revision to a LANL policy manual for repackaging waste led to a wholesale shift from clay litter to the wheat-based variety. The revision, approved by LANL, took effect Aug. 1, 2012, mere days after the governor’s celebratory visit to Los Alamos, and explicitly directed waste packagers at the lab to “ENSURE an organic absorbent (kitty litter) is added to the waste” when packaging drums of nitrate salt. “Does it seem strange that the procedure was revised to specifically require organic kitty litter to process nitrate salt drums?” Freeman, Nuclear Waste Partnership’s chief nuclear engineer at WIPP, asked a colleague in a May 28 email. Freeman went on to echo some of the possible reasons for the change bandied about in earlier emails, such as the off-putting dust or perfumed scents characteristic of clay litter. But his colleague, Mark Pearcy, a member of the team that reviews waste to ensure it is acceptable to be stored at WIPP, offered a surprising explanation. “General consensus is that the ‘organic’ designation was a typo that wasn’t caught,” he wrote, implying that the directions should have called for inorganic litter. And now more than 5,500 containers of nuclear waste may contain organic sorbent. Moral of the story: Proofread your procedures carefully. Overall, the story paints Los Alamos National Laboratory waste-handling procedures and communication as a mess. I’m wondering about a couple of things, though. First is...

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Sharing safety practices among academia, government, and industry
Nov19

Sharing safety practices among academia, government, and industry

The Council for Chemical Research is playing matchmaker to pair up academic institutions with government or industrial organizations to share safety practices. Says CCR: If you would be willing to share your safety practices with any interested academic CCR members, we would share contact information and a brief description of potential ways you might prefer to interact with the academic CCR members through various means (letters, emails, CCR website). … Through this simple process, we hope to help academic chemistry and chemical engineering departments work together with industrial and government laboratories on this critically important topic, with key desired outcomes being sharing of best safety practices, enhanced safety training of researchers, fostering relationships between institutions, and useful publicity for all involved. The project stems from CCR’s white paper on “Safety in Academic Laboratories.” CCR also now has a safety award, which this year went to the University of Minnesota Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering & Materials...

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Legacy samples yield headaches
Sep09

Legacy samples yield headaches

Several safety breaches involving pathogens have brought attention to the problem of legacy samples. Vials of smallpox dating to the 1950s were discovered in unsecured Food & Drug Administation labs on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md., earlier this summer. Then, last week, the Washington Post reported that NIH workers found ricin, the bacteria that cause plague, and other so-called “select agents” where they weren’t supposed to be. Meanwhile, FDA found staphylococcal enterotoxin in a lab that wasn’t supposed to handle it. Select agents are “biological agents and toxins have been determined to have the potential to pose a severe threat to both human and animal health, to plant health, or to animal and plant products,” according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. There may be more coming: The White House Office of Science & Technology Policy has requested a safety stand-down in which government labs and nongovernment labs that receive federal funding are encouraged to do “an immediate sweep of their facilities that possess, use, or transfer human, animal, or plant infectious agent or toxin holdings to identify Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSA) and ensure their proper registration, safe stewardship, and secure storage or disposal,” according to an Aug. 18 memo. An Aug. 27 NIH notice says that its labs are conducting inventories of infectious agents and toxins. I’m sure all scientists can imagine what may have happened here: Someone left without clearing their bench or their lab. Someone else took over. Instead of cleaning out, they pushed the samples to the back of the fridge or storage area. Repeat. But someone, someday has to deal with it. Last year, the University of California, Davis, chemistry department cleaned out more than 10,000 lb of hazardous waste that had accumulated over decades, department safety manager Debbie M. Decker said in a talk at the ACS Meeting in San Francisco last month. Potentially explosive compounds filled a roughly 10 ft3 bunker, and it took about six months to get everything removed from campus for disposal, Decker said. So far, no one at NIH has gotten ill from the old samples. Nor was anyone at UC Davis hurt. But was it worth the risk not to clean out samples, reagents, or solvents sooner? Even if you think you might use something someday, will you trust that it’s still good by then? Delaying disposal often just makes cleaning out more expensive, too, especially if you can no longer read a label or something becomes potentially explosive over time, such as with diethyl ether...

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