Naturalproductman’s Blog

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Hazardous compounds – a learning experience

Posted by naturalproductman on October 11, 2013

I’ve dealt with many hazardous chemicals and safety is an important issue.  I think anybody working in a chemistry lab should be in the habit of always wearing eye protection (i.e. safety glasses), lab coat (cover your arms), and gloves. Also running reactions in a working fumehood.

I am going to share a story I personally experienced because it is important for any practicing chemist to be careful.

I was in a lab where a new postdoc had joined and the person had taken my saturated NaHCO3 (sodium bicarbonate) (aq.) solution bottle and replaced it with Na2S2O3 (sodium thiosulfate) (I am assuming the postdoc was using this sodium thiosulfate solution to workup “their” Dess-Martin periodinane reaction). The mistake the person had made was when they did not remove my label of NaHCO3 on the bottle and just used a permanent marker with “their” Na2S2O3 marking. Here was the hazard: I used this bicarbonate solution to wash my mCPBA (in diethyl ether) to remove the benzoic acid impurity in the commercially available mCPBA. The reaction I was performing was a sulfoxide elimination of a phenyl sulfide substituent. Well when I did not see that my label was changed in my bottle and I did the usual wash of mCPBA (about 3 g) in diethyl ether and saturated NaHCO3 in a separatory funnel, the stuff just heated up and the solution went everywhere – including my face and neck and left arm. I should also mention that I was wearing safety glasses and latex gloves. Yes I did not wear a lab coat and I learned my lesson. However – when I pointed out in the lab that somebody had changed the NaHCO3 solution to Na2S2O3 by indicating the smeared Sharpee mark of Na2S2O3, the postdoc, who I had suspected of doing it immediately said “WHO DID IT?” That weekend I had come in on Saturday and observed the postdoc washing my bottle of “NaHCO3” out with soap and water.

Of course the person ended up denying it and when I finally confronted the person months later and indicated the scars that were left from the accident, the person finally apologized. Sometimes an apology is all you need – it really did make me feel better. And yes I do still have some scars from that incident only to remind myself of the importance of a lab coat and sometimes even a face shield. I of course always wear a lab coat when I am working in the lab now. Accidents are unpredictable and happen to the best of us, you just never know what is going to happen in the lab even if it wasn’t on purpose because they are just accidents. Having proper personal protective equipment (i.e. lab coat, safety glasses, gloves) can help us minimize damages.

Here is a news article about lab accidents.

4 Responses to “Hazardous compounds – a learning experience”

  1. Accidents, big or little, are always regrettable but they are also avoidable. I’m sorry to read you got hurt. Would you agree that some countries are ‘cockier’ towards their attitude about lab safety than others? Here in Mexico, most labs are very strong about the use of a lab coat, quite strong about the use of goggles and quite variable on the use of gloves; at least here at the National University (UNAM). My abroad education occurred in Europe where they were quite softer on security measures but I’m given to understand that labs in the US have strong safety policies but poor enforcement, is that true?
    In industry people is not even allowed inside labs without the proper equipment, somebody should enforce those measures in academic labs as well.
    Anyway, safety first!

    Best wishes

    • naturalproductman said

      I’d say in academia in the USA, the safety measures vary depending on the PI of the lab and how he/she runs the lab.

      But with increasing publicity of fatal accidents in the labs, I think that the requirements for lab safety are becoming more strict.

      I do know that in industry the protocols are very strict when it comes to safety. I think because the liability is higher in industry. I don’t know the nitty gritty details though – I’m sure a lawyer would know very well.

      That being said, I do agree with you that it is a cultural thing: if people are more afraid of breaking rules that are spelled out in bold, they would take safety precautions more seriously.

      I think maybe the recent UCLA case may cause a precedent in changing those laws in the USA.

  2. milkshake said

    I work in a polymer lab and until recently we used lots of potassium metal for making an initiator system. K metal has to be cleaned very thoroughly, by cutting off the crust under mineral oil, and washed under heptane before it can be used – there is lots of waste cuttings of K metal in heptane-oil mix. A colleague attempted to quench these K-leftovers with isopropyl alcohol, and unfortunately grabbed a squeeze bottle with DCM, that unfortunately was color-coded the same way as IPA and looked very similar, and was right next to IPA. The resulting bang and metal + solvent fire were quite impressive, fortunately no-one got hurt.

    One has to observe a new guy in the lab, how good his/her techniques are. I had a problem with some foreign postdocs being inconsiderate, leaving shared equipment in state of total disrepair and not telling anyone what they have done, or not cleaning after themselves (you put your precious compound on prep HPLC – a result of long synthetic sequence – and strange orange gunk comes off in your fraction as someone crystalized their compound within the injector loop and the guard column, and never bothered to take it apart and clean it

    • naturalproductman said

      Yeah – it is good that nobody was hurt. Also, that is unfortunate how sometimes new people do things in a sloppy manner.

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