Disharmonic convergences: Home Chemistry Hobbyist Shut Down in Massachusetts.

You will recall a review I wrote some time ago of a book called "Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments" by Robert Bruce Thompson, and published by O'Reilly. I liked the book a lot and strongly recommended it for homeschoolers and hobbyists who were serious about chemistry.

Now, we have a news report of someone who appears to be a chemistry hobbyist (no, not cooking meth or making bombs) in Marlboro Massachusetts, who has had his lab dismantled and confiscated by local authorities.

This event is summarized and criticized by RB Thomson, author of the afore mentioned book. Excerpted from Thomson's commentary, published on the O'Reilly web site, which I strongly recommend reading:

Pamela Wilderman, the code enforcement officer for Marlboro, stated, "I think Mr. Deeb has crossed a line somewhere. This is not what we would consider to be a customary home occupation."

Allow me to translate Ms. Wilderman's words into plain English: "Mr. Deeb hasn't actually violated any law or regulation that I can find, but I don't like what he's doing because I'm ignorant and irrationally afraid of chemicals, so I'll abuse my power to steal his property and shut him down."

Indeed, the phrase "crossed the line somewhere" should put a chill down the spine of anyone who does anything not absolutely typical in their home ... such as home schooling or messing around with science.

I do not yet know the details of this case sufficiently to render an opinion, but I would venture to guess, and I'd bet a five dollar gift certificate to any one of the many fine do-nut establishments one can find in Marlboro Massachusetts, that Thompson has this essentially right.

However, I want to add that Thompson links this event to tyranny and to the "nanny state" tendencies of Massachusetts. By way of correction, I should point out that Marlboro Massachusetts is as politically conservative as any semi-industrial town you'll find from the Atlantic to the Rust Belt, and Massachusetts is in fact the birthplace of the American Revolution against British Tyranny. I assume Mr. Thompson is very good at labeling his chemical bottles and jars, but maybe in this case not so much when it comes to the culture and politics related to this town.

What we have here, rather than tyranny and nannyhood, is ignorance and fear. Ignorance of how to do ones job, which may be semi-excusable given the unique nature of the situation (but they really should have checked with their lawyers first...) and fear that arises from the post 911 (and post anthrax?) and post-Tylenol mentality, fostered by political forces that I don't need to tell you about.....

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Right. Time for sleep.

This action is a natural extension of what the Federal government's DEA has been doing for years and years: They have withdrawn and made unavailable hundreds of substances which used to be stock in trade for hobbyist home chemistry sets, usually obtainable through your local neighborhood drug store. Some of these were withdrawn for fears of carcinogenicity (that affects university chem labs, too), some because they could be readily diverted into stocking recreational drug labs. Most recently, substances have been licensed and withdrawn because they might be made into bombs. There's an underlying trend in all this which is quite wrong and quite unhealthy. It's like a Whorfian hypothesis of substances, that if you deny people the stuff they can't do the harm. The next level, of course, sometimes already transgressed, is if you deny people the knowledge, they can't do the harm.

The troubles are: (1) our politicians are some of the least educated people of the society, particularly with respect to science, and (2) politicians, public, and policy apparatus have no systematic way of assessing and evaluating risks, and acting accordingly. So, of course, big chem plants, which IMO should be regulated, rightly complain that the chemicals people dump on their lawns are far riskier than anything they do. They are right. Of course, as said, they *should* be regulated, but the homeowner should know stuff, too.

(Full disclosure: Bob Thompson is a friend of mine and I helped him with his book).

I think the phrase "crossed the line somewhere" is, indeed, chilling and this is, as you say, a case caused fundamentally by ignorance and fear. But I don't think tyranny is too strong of a word. We will never eliminate ignorance and fear but we can - we must - eliminate the power of government to arbitrarily act on them.

Ms. Wilderman was able to call in the full force of the local police and other organizations, force Mr. Deeb from his home and take his property without, so far as I can tell, any court orders or hearings. The officials say he "may have" violated local regulations, but they haven't made any move to prove that or, indeed, charge him with anything. If a government agency can bar you from your home and take your property because they think you "may have" violated regulations or laws, you don't live in a free society. You live under tyrannical rule. The word is loaded, I'll grant, but that is what it means.

In fact, this line: �He�s been very cooperative,� Ms. Wilderman said. �I won�t be citing him for anything right at this moment.� definitely smacks of tyranny, on the local scale. Basically, if you're nice to us and let us do as we please, we'll let you be, she is saying. If he'd fought for his right to home and hearth, he'd be in jail and facing stiff fines. If he's broken the law, they should charge him and try him. If he's convicted, he should be punished accordingly. Otherwise, they should stay out of his house.

Marlboro may be conservative (although I'm not clear how that means they can't slide into tyranny) and Massachusetts may be the birthplace of the American Revolution, but that was a long, long time ago. What would the locals have done had British officials showed up at a neighbor's house and confiscated their property and barred them from their home without hearing or conviction? What would they have called it? Would they, in fact, have started a Revolution? In my view, the current actions of the Marlboro government is very closely analogous to the goings-on of British officials in Massachusetts in the 1750s, 60s and 70s.

By Paul Jones (not verified) on 12 Aug 2008 #permalink

Marlboro may be conservative (although I'm not clear how that means they can't slide into tyranny)

Conservative generally = higher chance of tyranny, of course. That is the point. And anti science. Liberals are pro science, and also favor electing smarter elected officials and hiring smarter cops and city workers, etc. Liberals favor more education.

We can argue about how much tyranny vs. stupidity is going on here, but clearly both are in evidence.

Home chemistry hobbyist does not seem to apply to this guy, it seems more like makeshift chemical engineering R&D laboratory.

From the linked newspaper article:

Firefighters found more than 1,500 vials, jars, cans, bottles and boxes in the basement Tuesday afternoon, after they responded to an unrelated fire in an air conditioner on the second floor of the home.
Mr. Deeb was doing scientific research and development in a residential area, which is a violation of zoning laws.

Hmm, guy has big chemistry lab set up in his basement in a residential neighborhood. He can't contain and extinguish an air conditioner fire himself. I think he needs a lot more laboratory safety skills like how to use a fire extinguisher. If he'd put out his air conditioner fire himself they would never have found his underground R&D lab.

Hmm, guy has big chemistry lab set up in his basement in a residential neighborhood. He can't contain and extinguish an air conditioner fire himself.

To be fair, I haven't read the article. I'd assume he was either gone or in the basement and someone else in the house or a neighbor made the 911 call. You could also argue that he's exceptionally safety-conscious and called 911 before attempting to contain the fire himself.

I don't think there is much doubt that this guy went over the top and had too many and too much in the way of dangerous chemicals not properly handled. I think Thompson's complain is not so much that this guy shouldn't have been called on this, but rather, that the authorities treated his hobbyism and interest in science like he WAS running a meth lab or a terrorist bomb factory or something along those lines.

In fact, guys like this make other home science enthusiasts look bad...


Am I going to get arrested for running servers out of my house? Actually, I've been a little concerned that the power they draw might bring the DEA down on me...

I read a few different articles, he's in my county, and they say it took the Fire Department one minute to put out the fire.

Other local newspaper articles elaborate that when the firemen did their mandatory whole house ventilation procedure:

"Firefighters went into the basement and discovered a large quantity of various chemicals, unmarked and unlabeled," said Adams. "It appeared to be a lab of some sort. The owner was doing research and development of some kind."

[Fire Chief] Adams said there were more than 100 unmarked containers ranging in size from quarts and gallons to several 20-gallon drums.

More than 1,500 containers of unidentified chemicals have been found in a home at 81 Fremont St., where the homeowner used his basement as a laboratory.

"None of the materials have any radiological or biological risk," said Joseph M. Ferson, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Marlboro firefighters found the basement full of chemicals on Tuesday, when they responded to an unrelated fire in a window air conditioner on the second floor of the home. The fire was extinguished quickly, but a hazardous materials team spent hours examining the chemicals.
"Some were marked, some were unmarked,"

Deputy Fire Chief Ron Ayotte said Tuesday. "They were on shelves, on the floor."

They also said he did not have any of the required permits to have such large quantities of chemicals and that he was present at the time of the fire. Sounds to me like a retired chemist who wasn't taking lab regulations and safety seriously.

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