David Snyder sentenced in UC Davis explosives case
Nov07

David Snyder sentenced in UC Davis explosives case

After a 2013 explosion in his campus apartment, University of California, Davis postdoctoral chemist David Snyder was charged with 17 counts relating to explosives, hazardous waste, and possessing firearms on campus. He went through a preliminary hearing last year, then in September he pled no contest to the charges. His sentencing hearing was today. The judge sentenced Snyder to a total of 4 years and 4 months, with half to be spent in county jail and the other half under “mandatory supervision” by the county probation department,  says Yolo County Chief Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Raven. Update: Snyder was also ordered to pay a $20,000 fine, according to the Yolo County high profile cases web page. Coming up: a restitution hearing on Dec....

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On individual versus institutional responsibility for workplace injuries
Oct13

On individual versus institutional responsibility for workplace injuries

A comment on personal versus institutional responsibility by Suzanne Donovan, an infectious disease specialist at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, who spoke on NPR on Sunday about the Texas health care worker now infected with Ebola: And I think it’s really important that there is no finger-pointing at the healthcare worker so that the healthcare worker did something wrong because this is all about training and having the appropriate equipment. … I think in a country like the United States, where there’s very few cases, the environment is very safe and the equipment is readily available. I find that very disconcerting that a healthcare worker had an exposure and is infected. I think we need to look at the processes that occurred in that institution and ensure they never happen...

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Denver student hit in chest with jet of flaming methanol
Sep17

Denver student hit in chest with jet of flaming methanol

New incident, same message: Don’t pour alcohol anywhere near a possible flame. At a press briefing yesterday, Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board investigators spoke about what they’ve learned so far regarding an incident at a Denver high school that sent four students to the hospital on Monday: The teacher lit a small pool of methanol to demonstrate its flame properties. When the flame didn’t rise as high as desired, he added more methanol from a 4 L container. The fire flashed back into the container, then emerged as a “jet fire” that traveled 15 ft to hit a student in the chest. That student was wearing a synthetic shirt and was seriously injured, others sitting nearby were also hurt. CSB investigators also spoke about the Sept. 3 incident involving a “tornado” demo at a Reno, Nev., museum that sent nine people to the hospital. CSB had previously released details on that one, which involved pouring methanol from a 4 L bottle onto what was likely a smoldering cotton ball. The only new information yesterday was that the demo normally involves three tornadoes in varying fuel/additive combinations to show different flame colors. Also, back when the museum started using the demo, demonstrators had left the 4 L bottle in another area, taking out to the demo table only the amount needed. “Out of convenience, over time, the 4 L container itself had started being used in the demonstration,” CSB inspector Mark Wingard said. “Instructors and teachers are just not aware of the flashback hazard of methanol,” CSB managing director Daniel Horowitz said. “Methanol has a flash point that’s pretty similar to gasoline. I think that if people knew that gallon containers of gasoline were being brought into classrooms right near flames, they would be horrified.” Here are stories I was able to turn up from roughly the past year either definitely were or sound like methanol fires: Sept. 9, 2013, in Frisco, Tex.: Two middle school students and a teacher were injured in a flash fire that arose from a flame test experiment involving methanol. Oct. 3, 2013, in Douglas County, Ga.: One student suffered burns on 25% of her body when, while doing a flame test experiment, “a flammable liquid dispensed from the container unexpectedly fast and ignited, involving a 12th grade female student and catching her on fire.” Nov. 12, 2013, in Avondale, Az.: Four students and a teacher were injured in a “flash explosion” that occurred during a flame test experiment. Nov. 25, 2013, in Chicago, Ill.: A high school student suffered second-degree burns on her hands and four other students were hospitalized when the teacher was doing a flame test...

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CSB warns against using methanol in classroom or lab demos
Sep15

CSB warns against using methanol in classroom or lab demos

Following up on the flash fire during a “tornado” demo in a Nevada museum, the U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board released a statement today containing details of the incident and warning against using methanol in combustion demonstrations. CSB investigators responded to the museum fire, and their description of what happened confirms what the Associated Press reported: Our investigative team determined that the incident occurred during a “fire tornado” demonstration where salts of different elements were combusted in a dish in the presence of alcohol-soaked cotton balls, while spinning on a lazy Susan-type rotating tray. This produces a tornado-like colored flame that rises in the air. The incident happened during a version where boric acid was to be burned in the presence of a methanol-soaked cotton ball. When the cotton failed to ignite it was realized that it had not been adequately wetted with methanol. More methanol was added to the cotton from a four-liter (one gallon) plastic bottle. Unknown to personnel, the cotton ball was likely continuing to smolder, and it ignited the freshly added methanol and flashed back to the bottle. Burning methanol then sprayed from the bottle toward the nearby audience of adults and children visiting the museum. The CSB statement, by chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, goes on to say that: Methanol is an essential chemical and an emerging energy resource with a multitude of important industrial and environmental uses. But in the cautionary words of Greg Dolan, CEO of the Methanol Institute, which represents the manufacturing community, “Like gasoline, methanol is a toxic and flammable chemical and should only be handled in appropriate settings, and that would certainly not include museums and classrooms.” Methanol readily emits heavier-than-air flammable vapors and the liquid has a low flash point, meaning it can ignite at room temperature in the presence of an ignition source. This creates an unacceptable risk of flash fire whenever any appreciable quantities of methanol are handled in the open lab or classroom in the presence of pervasive ignition sources, such as open flames, heat sources, or sparks. There is also a significant risk of flashback to any nearby methanol bulk container, as was the case in this last incident in Reno, Nevada. … Today I am calling on all schools, museums, and science educators to discontinue any use of bulk methanol – or other similar flammables – in lab demonstrations that involve combustion, open flames, or ignition sources. There are safer alternative ways to demonstrate the same scientific phenomena, and many teachers are already using them. Any use of methanol or other flammables should be either avoided completely or restricted to minimal amounts, which...

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David Snyder pled no contest to all charges in UC Davis explosives case
Sep12

David Snyder pled no contest to all charges in UC Davis explosives case

Former University of California, Davis postdoctoral chemist David Snyder was headed to trial next month on 17 explosives, hazardous waste, and firearms charges stemming from a 2013 explosion in his campus apartment. At a hearing today that was supposed to deal with legal motions prior to an Oct. 20 trial start, Snyder pled no contest to all of the charges, according to an update from the Yolo County District Attorney’s office: Defendant Pled No Contest to all charges in the complaint (17 counts). As he pled to all counts, the DA had no role in this plea. The judge made no promises as to the sentence. There will be a sentencing hearing on 10/17/14. The case was referred to the Probation Department for a presentence report. I’ve reached out to the DA’s office to see if I’m reading that correctly–that this wasn’t a plea agreement, Snyder just decided to plead no contest, and will update when I hear back. For recaps of Snyder’s preliminary hearing, see day one and day two. Update: I was correct, this is not a plea agreement. “I believe we made an offer but it was much higher,” said Jonathan Raven, Yolo County Chief Deputy District Attorney. “Now, it’s really up to the judge, with a recommendation from probation and arguments from both sides, to figure out the sentence.” Raven added that the judge said that he was inclined to give Snyder three years in jail, but the judge made no promise. Other coverage: Sacramento Bee, Woodland Daily Democrat,...

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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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