Safely experimenting with actinides
Jun02

Safely experimenting with actinides

A few weeks ago, I wrote a C&EN Science Concentrate about a new californium complex with covalent bonds to its ligands rather than the ionic interactions traditionally expected for actinides. The work was led by Thomas E. Albrecht-Schmitt, a chemistry professor at Florida State University. His lab at FSU works with thorium, protactinium, uranium, neptunium, plutonium, americium, curium, californium, and—soon, for the first time–berkelium. His lab works with those elements safely by investing in protective equipment and meticulously planning experiments. Most of the actinides in Albrecht-Schmitt’s lab only present a concern if people inhale or ingest them, he says. It’s when they get to americium that they have to start thinking about radiation exposure. For americium, the concern is gamma emissions; for curium it’s spontaneous fission to release a neutron. And for californium, the only isotope available in experimental quantity is 249Cf, which releases high-energy gamma radiation. “To shield to background levels we need 2 inches of lead,” Albrecht-Schmitt says. Safety in his lab starts with shoes. “The most common way in which radioactive material leaves a lab is when someone unknowingly steps in a contaminated area and walks out,” Albrecht-Schmitt says. National labs tackle the problem by using foot covers, but his group members have dedicated lab shoes that they change into when they walk in and leave behind when they walk out. His lab also has glove boxes dedicated to transuranium chemistry. Unlike standard glove boxes, which run at positive pressure to protect the box contents from air, Albrecht-Schmitt’s has some that under negative pressure—sucking air in to prevent the spread of particulate matter. “The exhaust from the pumps and boxes is routed through a very sophisticated filter system,” Albrecht-Schmitt says. When doing lab work, Albrecht-Schmitt and his group members wear double gloves. They also use masking tape to tape the inner glove to their lab coats. That way they never have exposed skin, and if someone thinks their hands have been contaminated, they can remove the outer glove and still be protected. Working in a glove box adds a third layer to the hands. The lab has several radiation counters, including general ones to detect any kind of radiation and specific ones to check for alpha, beta, and gamma emissions. There’s also a special hand and foot monitor that people step on for a scan before leaving the lab. Lab coats get checked and replaced as needed. “Students who do low-level work may replace theirs once a year, but routine work with short-lived isotopes may mean replacing them 3-4 times a year,” Albrecht-Schmitt says. Used coats go into radioactive waste. And then there are the inspections....

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Dow teams up with universities on lab safety, how’d the UC “Creating Safety Cultures” webinar go?
Oct29

Dow teams up with universities on lab safety, how’d the UC “Creating Safety Cultures” webinar go?

Following up on a blog post last spring about a new lab safety partnership between Dow Chemical and the University of Minnesota, I’ve got a story in today’s issue of C&EN delving into the details of what Dow and its partner universities have done so far. Since the program started, Dow has expanded it to include Penn State University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, and each school is experimenting with different Dow-inspired ideas. Also, students, take note: It’s not just the schools that have benefited from the interactions between Dow and the universities. Dow has changed one of its practices as well, Gupta says. Dow recruiters are now asking questions about safety in on-campus interviews, looking for people who have taken leadership positions or tried to emphasize safety in their own work. Separately, did anyone attend the University of California’s webinar last week on “Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions.” How was it? Did you get anything useful out of it? I was enmeshed in training and our annual Advisory Board and staff meetings for much of last week, so I had to miss it. Last but not least, I hope that everyone on the U.S. Atlantic seaboard stays safe and dry during...

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The principles of “inherently safer” processes or experiments
Jul23

The principles of “inherently safer” processes or experiments

The U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board released a video a couple of weeks ago on “Inherently Safer: The Future of Risk Reduction.” Although the video stems from CSB and National Research Council investigations into the BayerCropScience explosion in 2008, the principles of inherently safer processes can also be applied to research-scale experiments. As outlined in the video, those principles are: Minimize – reduce the amount of hazardous material in the process Substitute – replace one material with another that is less hazardous Moderate – use less hazardous process conditions, such as lower pressure or temperature Simplify – design processes to be less complicated and therefore less prone to failure “It’s not a specific technology or a set of tools and activities, but it’s really an approach to design and it’s a way of thinking,” said Dennis Hendershot, a consultant with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Center for Chemical Process Safety, at a 2009 CSB meeting. “The safety features are built right into the process, not added on. Hazards are eliminated or significantly reduced rather than controlled or managed.” The video goes on to say that the goal of inherently safer process design is not only to prevent an accident but to reduce the consequences of an accident should one occur. A research lab experiment gone wrong, of course, is unlikely to affect the surrounding community in the way that a manufacturing incident might. But research lab incidents have cost millions of dollars and caused personal injuries in the form of lost eyes, hands, and fingers; burns and other unspecified injuries; and deaths of several researchers (for more, see the Laboratory Safety Institute’s Memorial...

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Lab safety survey still open
Jul16

Lab safety survey still open

Happy Monday, all! The laboratory safety survey sponsored by the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety, BioRAFT, and Nature Publishing Group is still open for another week, until July 23. If you haven’t taken it, consider doing so at go.nature.com/7LDJlI.

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Explosion during phosphine prep
May23

Explosion during phosphine prep

We have a safety alert in this week’s issue of C&EN, regarding an explosion that happened at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, during distillation of (C6F5)PH2: While a researcher fractionally distilled the primary phosphine (C6F5)PH2, which was synthesized by the reduction of (C6F5)PCl2 with an excess of lithium aluminum hydride (LAH), the distillation apparatus containing the phosphine detonated. Fortunately, because the researcher was wearing appropriate personal protective equipment and working in front of a sliding blast shield, only minor injuries resulted from the explosion. The researcher was following a literature prep for the synthesis of (C6F5)PH2 (Z. Naturforschg. 1966, 21b, 920), wherein (C6F5)PCl2 was reduced with an excess (2.1 M equiv based on Li) of LAH. After the reaction was completed, the slurry was filtered and ether was evaporated from the filtrate, yielding an oil and some LAH. This mixture was then extracted into hexanes to remove the remaining LAH, and the resulting phosphine/hexanes mixture was fractionally distilled under N2. After the hexanes were fractionally distilled away and the distillation apparatus was at approximately 50 °C, the apparatus detonated. The source of the incident is being investigated. Work with this molecule and similar compounds should be conducted carefully until the exact cause of this incident is determined and reported. By Ian Tonks Clark Landis Department of Chemistry University of Wisconsin,...

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Another explosion at Texas Tech and a fire at UCLA
Oct25

Another explosion at Texas Tech and a fire at UCLA

A few days before the Chemical Safety Board report on Texas Tech University came out, TTU had another laboratory explosion of sorts in the chemistry department. This one didn’t involve energetic materials; rather, it centered on a waste bottle that contained dilute nitric acid, TTU Vice President for Research Taylor Eighmy said in a conference call for reporters last week. The nitric acid bottle was in a hood, next to a bottle of dilute acetic acid, and when the nitric acid bottle blew it cracked the base of the hood and sent glass shards and the waste solution into the lab, TTU said. The good news was that the lab was empty and no one was hurt. But someone could have been hurt because the hood sash was up–although I don’t know how high–and the glass and waste solution was therefore able to spread out into the lab, Eighmy said. So that’s lesson #1: Pull down hood sashes. Lesson #2 will likely involve what exactly was in the bottle with the nitric acid. TTU is still investigating that. But, as we saw last month at the University of Maryland and others have noted, nitric acid is a strong oxidizing agent and will react with organic compounds. Prudent Practices has this to say about it (page 138): Nitric acid is a strong acid, very corrosive, and decomposes to produce nitrogen oxides. The fumes are very irritating, and inhalation may cause pulmonary edema. Nitric acid is also a powerful oxidant and reacts violently, sometimes explosively [with] reducing agents (e.g., organic compounds) with liberation of toxic nitrogen oxides. Contact with organic matter must be avoided. Extreme caution must be taken when cleaning glassware contaminated with organic solvents or material with nitric acid. Toxic fumes of NOx are generated and explosion may occur. This week, there was a fire in a medical research lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, Center for Health Sciences. It was a small fire that was confined to one room and no one was injured, UCLA said. But nearly 150 fire fighters responded, the Los Angeles Fire Department said. UCLA spokesman Phil Hampton told me in an e-mail that “a confirmed fire in a research lab in a multi-story building automatically generates a large response. The vast majority of the responding crews left shortly after they arrived.” UCLA is still investigating the cause of the fire. The Daily Bruin reported today that: Lab manager Erika Valore said she was not in the lab at the time but was told a person working there was boiling water in plastic tubes over a Bunsen burner. Valore said the person...

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