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, ants. Apparently, a major leak developed during the 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. 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 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, still wore a Mao jacket, and was among the wave of students and post-docs who came out of the P.R.C. to U.S. university labs in the early 1980s. This guy was eager, but unaccustomed to lab practices in our department. 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 summoned. 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 the Phosgene Incident occurred and returned to find faculty, staff and students milling around outside the building, alarm claxons blaring, while campus and city fire trucks careened down the street. Firemen with air tanks strapped to their backs and with respirators on their faces prepared to enter the building. But wait! Who's this? An official looking guy in natty khaki 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 department's stoner 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 supervisors. 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 insect. 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 lab bench and set a significant chunk of the lab ablaze. After the incident, the principal investigator advised his students that roach flaming would no longer be tolerated.

(originally published March 7, 2006 on version 1 of the Chimp Refuge)

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However, the roaches had their revenge when one of the burning six-legged buggers scuttled beneath a lab bench and set a significant chunk of the lab ablaze.

Proof that flame wars don't help matters...

Cracking. Just a point: phosgene wasn't a nerve gas - it was used precisely because it does your lungs in.

Only lab accident I can recall was back when I was 6 or 7, while my dad was still working on his PhD. One of the other grad students was doing an experiment involving those wonderfully volatile compounds called organic peroxides.

By happy circumstance, the experiment decided to go south at about 4am or so, when nobody was actually in the lab. I recall going to the building the next day with my dad and watching all the people buzz around that end of the hall as they inspected the damage. Most vivid image: seeing a 40-50' length of cinderblock wall that had been uniformly shoved a good inch into the hallway. Next most vivid image: the walls inside the lab -- covered in the most amazing brown chemical splashes.

Amazing stuff to see, when you're a kid. Now, I realize just how lucky it was that nobody actually was there when the whole thing went "boom."

By G Barnett (not verified) on 27 Nov 2006 #permalink

When I went to work at a paper mill some years back, one of the first things I was taught was to walk around puddles on the floor. The puddle was most likely caused by a dripping leak and it probably wasn't water.

By Eric Juve (not verified) on 27 Nov 2006 #permalink

Re: roaches

I found a roach inside of a graduated cylinder. The strange part was that the top of the cylinder was covered with foil that was held onto the cylinder with autoclave tape. Apparently, the cylinder had been autoclaved with the roach inside.

Everyone knows that roaches should be frozen with dry ice, then left on an unsuspecting labmate's bench.

By Buffalo Gal (not verified) on 27 Nov 2006 #permalink

Re: Alex -

Just a point: phosgene wasn't a nerve gas - it was used precisely because it does your lungs in.

D'oh! You're right, of course. I'm mixing up phosgene's mechanism of action with that of 2-(fluoro-methyl-phosphoryl) oxypropane.

Ah yes - flames will get anyone in trouble. When I was in college, we weren't flaming roaches, we were flaming cottonwood fuzz. Great stuff - burns fast, leaves the seeds behind. You can set it up in cool patterns and burn words and things like that. Just be sure the section you are burning is not connected to the entire yard worth of cottonwood fuzz covered grass or there will be problems!!!

A coworker who took chemistry class in college tells me--during a lab, a student accidentally spilled tincture of iodine on his tee-shirt. The TA told him to use ammonia to get it out. er, uh........bad idea!

He washed the shirt in ammonia and hung it up to dry. As soon as it dried, it exploded.

Nobody was hurt, but the tee-shirt was lost.


Thanks for adding to the list. I can see why flaming cottonwood wool would be alluring. My brother and I did that with milkweed pod fluff a few times. Probably not wise, but fortunately, we didn't set a field alight.

Todd, that's a fabulous story. The Exploding T-Shirt. Ha! And Phoo, the recount of the unexploded LN2 bomb is impressive. But...taking the stairs? What on earth was that undergrad thinking...or not as the case may be.

GB, yep, the organic peroxides are mighty. Sodium azide is another nasty beast if heated to decomposition or if it interacts with heavy metals. One of my colleagues darn near blew his hand off when an azide reaction went bad. The alternative synthesis group, when readying the compounds for scale-up, wisely found another route which avoided the azide step.