Madcap hazmat: a nostalgic reverie of lab accidents

So this morning when I walked into the corridors bisecting our labs from our offices, I was greeted by yellow “caution wet floor” signs and my staff scurrying about like industrious, yet annoyed, overeducated ants. Apparently, a major leak developed sometime late last night in a lab on the second floor. The water made its way into another group’s tissue culture lab adjoining my department’s facilities. Fortunately, none of our equipment was affected, and our offices were dry in spite of copious puddles of water on the tile floors of the hallways. I did not arrive early enough to witness the full comedy of the company safety personnel taking care of the problem. According to one of my staff, the safety folk began tromping about without any investigation as to what might be lurking in the standing water. You see, when water floods a laboratory, there’s always the possibility that it carries contamination in the form of noxious chemicals, biohazards, or radioactivity, depending on the source of the flood. This is not to mention the possibility of electrical hazards. The lackadaisical approach to clean-up, coupled with the observation of sparks shooting out of the ceiling when something started arcing as a result of the errant H2O, calls to mind many haphazard approaches to lab accidents in my past.

Although safety in labs should be, and typically is, taken quite seriously, many scientists find amusement in exchanging tales of “safety incidents.” Heck, even non-scientists have their stories as evidenced by historical recounts of mischievious chem class vandals who flushed turds of sodium metal down myriad high school boys’ restroom crappers.

Some of the more memorable safety incidents of my career occurred while I was in grad school. Fortunately, I was not the instigator. These were perpetrated by my fellow students. One involved phosgene gas release. At room temperature, phosgene exists as a highly reactive gas which, when inhaled, reacts with water in the lungs to form hydrochloric acid. Damage by the acid causes pulmonary edema. Although phosgene raised its spectral head as a weapon (nerve gas) in World War I, it has more benign uses in chemical synthesis, and can be generated in situ from other reagents for this purpose.

That’s what one of my fellow students was doing: generating phosgene for an alkylation reaction. He was supposed to chill the reaction vessel in an ice-water bath so that the phosgene would be contained. He was also supposed to perform this chemistry in a fume hood. Some source of confusion came into play as he set up his reaction. The confusion was possibly due to English as a second language. This fellow was fresh out of the People’s Republic of China, and was among the wave of students and post-docs who came out of that country to US university labs in the early 1980s. He even had a Mao jacket. Rather than setting up his reaction in the fume hood and on ice, as per relatively safe procedures, this chap happily cobbled together his reaction vessel in the “cold room.” Perhaps the student was unduly impressed with capitalist running dog technology and decided that the cold room, a contained insulated space whose temperature was maintained at 4 degrees Celcius or thereabouts, would offer a more sophisticated and reliable alternative to the more proletarian ice-water bath. It was the “thereabouts” temperature control which became problematic. In the summer, when the Phosgene Incident occurred, the temperatures in the cold rooms of our old building fluctuated wildly. Because the student’s reaction was not on ice, it warmed up along with the ambient tempertaure of the not-so-cold room. Thus, phosgene gas was emitted from the student’s reaction vessel. One of his colleagues discovered it when he walked into the cold room and smelled the characteristic new mown hay odor of the gas. He immediately bolted away, pulled the fire alarrms, and University Safety was called from a further removed locale. The student who discovered the phosgene scene was whisked off to the university hospital for observation. Not to worry, he was fine. The principal investigator was a no-nonsense, brusk fellow of Taiwanese origins, and was apoplectic over the incident. The Phosgene Kid was lucky not to be deported back to the People’s Republic.

I was ferreting out journal articles at a campus library when this happened and returned to find faculty, staff and students milling around outside the building, alarm claxons blaring, while campus and city fire trucks careened onto the street. Firemen with air tanks strapped to their backs and respirators on their faces prepared to enter the building. But wait! Who’s this? An official looking guy in trim pants and a dress shirt, and not a lick of any kind of protective equipment led the bemasked firemen into the building. I quipped to my fellow students and post-docs: “He must be the canary.”

That wasn’t the last of many incidents in the old lab building. This was in the days when smoking was still allowed in many academic labs. A chain-puffing post-doc tossed a smouldering cigarette butt into a trash can which also contained an empty container of ethyl ether. Well, it was nominally “empty” since ether fumes lingered in the trash can, Flames subsequently shot to the ceiling and singed off the postdoc’s goatee and eyebrows. A year or so later in the same lab, a tank of hydrochloric acid gas sprang a leak and caused another evacuation. Again, there was a “canary,” in this case the stoner departmental safety officer who ambled toward the affected lab while waving about a litmus paper strip as his sole source of protective equipment. It was a slow day at the local TV stations, so the local telejournalists covered the story as a “hazardous chemical spill on campus,” and interviewed a couple of my classmates from the lab. Their principal investigator had been away at a conference, and upon returning to town, learned of the “spill” in his lab via the local news. He was less than pleased by the sudden notoriety.

One of the more bizarre safety incidents was described to me by one of my former bosses. He was a grad student in organic chemistry back in the 1960’s. He and his labmates amused themselves late in the evenings by shooting acetone from squirt bottles onto the many ubiquitous and large cockroaches which ventured forth at night. Once the roach was doused with acetone, the students tossed a lit match onto the roach. Poof! Cockroach flambé! Yes, it was a cruel and unusual fate for the bug. However, the roaches had their revenge when one of the burning six-legged buggers scuttled beneath a cabinet full of flammable solvents and set the whole lab ablaze. After the incident, the principal investigator advised his students that roach flaming would no longer be tolerated.

Addendum, March 9, 2006: Check out In the Pipeline’s “How Not to Do It: Liquid Nitrogen Tanks” for an account of a pretty impressive “safety incident.”

One thought on “Madcap hazmat: a nostalgic reverie of lab accidents”

  1. Doc, you’ve just given me a fantastic idea for ridding my basement of some very large roaches, which I swear to the Invisible Pink Unicorn, have been moving the garbage can around at night just to mess with my head.

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