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April 11, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 15

Keeping chemistry safe

Considerations of safety pervade the chemical enterprise. The design of laboratories, pilot plants, operating units, and large chemical production facilities incorporates engineering features to minimize risk to employees, neighbors, and the environment. While adverse incidents do occur, the overall record of the chemical enterprise, especially over the past decade, is impressive. A major part of the success of safety programs is the efforts of the employees in these facilities. Some of their safety awareness is learned in school, but most is learned on the job. Unfortunately, some of the lessons learned are incorrect. Such was the case described in the letter by G. David Mendenhall (C&EN, Feb. 7, page 5). Others have already commented in some detail about that letter (C&EN, March 7, page 4). ACS's Division of Chemical Health & Safety (CHAS) wishes to address broader issues.

Today, we see positive safety attitudes expressed by students, technicians, and senior project leaders. We see process safety reviews being routinely performed as production units are brought on-line. We see improvements in the safety of pilot plants and production units brought about by the rational management of change. All of this comes about because everyone within the chemical industry recognizes that safety is good business.

Students today are taught to work on a microscale, reducing chemical use and reducing risk. Laboratory courses include segments on safety, although many of us would like to see even more safety content in the curriculum. Material Safety Data Sheets (with all of their deficiencies) are commonplace in the laboratory and in the production unit. Even nonscientists are likely to be concerned about the impact of chemicals on their well-being. While improvement is certainly possible, an attitude of safety awareness is pervasive in society at large.

The mission of CHAS is to promote chemical safety through education, research, and the dissemination of safety-related information. In performing this mission, CHAS provides leadership to the chemical enterprise. Mendenhall's actions in the laboratory demonstrated inappropriate leadership. Worse, his actions were directed at young chemistry students, many of whom are now presumably working in chemical industries.

The principles of chemical safety are the same in the laboratory, in the pilot plant, and in the chemical plant. The difference is risk. Toluene is flammable, but the management of 100,000 L in a chemical plant represents a higher risk than does the management of 4 L in a laboratory. Workers in each setting require training and supervision. The supervisors must provide an example to follow. It is here that Mendenhall failed. By having students perform a high-risk experiment where the only control was the reaction mass, he violated several principles of risk management.

Chemical safety is based on prevention of incidents and preparedness if an incident occurs. Everyone in the chemical enterprise has a responsibility to ensure that inappropriate behavior is corrected. Anyone, even a well-qualified safety professional, can err in responding to an incident or a near miss; when this occurs, the safety of the chemical enterprise is best served through correction, not intimidation or blame. When correcting someone, we must recognize that the medium by which the message is delivered will affect the audience's willingness to accept the message. A positive, respectful approach invariably accomplishes more than a heavy-handed response.

CHAS is available to assist everyone in the chemical enterprise on safety issues. The leadership of CHAS can be reached via our website ( Mendenhall's letter serves as a reminder. We can and must do better; we all must provide a safety example to follow, every day, in everything we do.

Russ Phifer, chair
Neal Langerman, immediate past chair
Jim Kapin, chair-elect
Harry Elston, editor, Chemical Health & Safety
ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety


In his letter on picric acid, Mendenhall states that "the remedy for ignorance and superstition is education." He then goes on to describe how he purposefully subverted the education of the safety officer. In fact, he appears to relish the memory of demonstrating "the ignorance of the safety official" without any regrets about not remedying that ignorance.

He also states that "the original dispute was resolved by the intercession of the department head." In reality, the department head allowed Mendenhall to deceive the safety officer--which makes one wonder about liability should an incident have occurred. In any case, it is just this sort of behavior (and the proud way Mendenhall recounts it, including describing the safety personnel as "hysterical") that only serves to reinforce the public's perception of chemists as arrogant scofflaws with little regard for public health or safety, a perception ACS has worked hard to change.

The bases for safe working conditions are trust and accountability; Mendenhall actively flouted both tenets. As an analytical chemist who also serves as a chemical hygiene officer, I would think twice before working in a lab with Mendenhall (or with one of his students who received an "education" from him about safety). I would also suggest that the next time Mendenhall takes issue with safety rules, he take the opportunity to truly educate the safety officer as to the risks of the compounds in his lab, working with (instead of against) the officer toward a workable arrangement. Personally, I have found that our corporate safety team is a great partner--not a roadblock--in helping us accomplish our goals in a timely and safe manner.

Carolyn J. Sampson


As a chemical engineer and safety professional, I read the letter from Mendenhall with alarm. While I sense a certain derision for the efforts of safety professionals, I am more concerned that 150 students were not only put at risk but also learned an incorrect safety lesson.

Let me start with the facts. Yes, fresh, pure, dry picric acid is somewhat non-shock- sensitive at room temperature. It is, however, both friction- and temperature-sensitive. Drop a weight on it and you may get lucky. But open or close a bottle having the compound on the screw threads, and you have an explosion on--and in--your hands. Could the picric acid be contaminated with metal? It's certainly possible. There are metal contaminants in most everything, even glass. And metal picrates are shock sensitive. In fact, there have been many cases where old bottles of picric acid have exploded. Far from behaving hysterically, the safety professional was acting prudently based on information Mendenhall may not have had.

Over the course of my career--most of which has been spent in chemical plants and labs--I have met and worked with hundreds, if not thousands, of safety professionals. None of them can be considered hysterical. Rather, they are chemists or chemical engineers who have developed expertise in making hazardous chemistry and chemical processing safer. And they are professionals whose primary concern is in making sure that the other chemists and chemical engineers they work with go home at the end of the day as healthy as they arrive. Had Mendenhall engaged in a reasoned discussion with the safety professional, they would no doubt have quickly reached agreement on a safe process for storing, handling, and using the picric acid.

The proper handling of chemicals and sensible management of reactivity hazards is vital to the entire chemical enterprise. I encourage chemists, chemical engineers, and educators in both fields to become more familiar with safety issues and in particular with chemical reactivity hazards. Three great resources are available, all free, for learning more about this subject area: the book "Essential Practices for Managing Chemical Reactivity Hazards," which can be browsed free online at; OSHA's Chemical Reactivity Hazard Management Alliance, online at; and the Reactivity Management Roundtable,

From the perspective of a safety professional, Mendenhall and his students got lucky. Let's use this opportunity to begin building a healthy regard for safety among students and working professionals.

Scott Berger, director, Center for Chemical Process Safety
American Institute of Chemical Engineers


Changing attitudes on climate change

I am confused by recent letters to the editor concerning global climate change (C&EN, Feb. 28, page 4). Specifically, several of those letters attacked your staff for being politically motivated against the current Administration and its stance on climate change. These letters leave one with the impression that the Bush Administration denies the existence of climate change.

This is clearly not true; the Bush Administration has done a complete turn on its opinion of climate change since it first came to power in 2000. This turnabout began quietly and slowly in 2002 and culminated in the summer of 2004 when the Administration admitted that climate change is real and, most notably, that human activity is at least partially responsible. This new position is documented in a report titled "Our Changing Planet," which summarizes the results of climate-change research performed by 13 government agencies, and was provided to Congress by the President's secretaries of commerce and energy and his science adviser.

I have enough faith in science to believe that experimentation on and discussion of climate change will continue regardless of what is written by magazine editors or those who write letters to the editor. Politically, though, it appears that the only issue on the table is what, if anything, do we do about it?

Kenneth G. Moloy
Hockessin, Del.

Examples of diversity

I am writing in response to the letter by Martha Greenblatt and her colleagues at Rutgers University's department of chemistry and chemical biology concerning the percentage of women faculty in their department (C&EN, Feb. 14, page 6).

Perhaps part of the problem with the debate concerning the numbers of women faculty is due to the rather limited focus on large, prestigious research institutions. While there can be no doubt that Rutgers, Pennsylvania State University, and all of their cohort institutions are fine, productive research centers, they are neither the entire university system in the U.S. nor are they necessarily representative.

At Middle Tennessee State University, our chemistry department has a total of 25 permanent tenured or tenure-track faculty. Of these 25 faculty, nine (36%) are women, a substantially higher percentage than the 25% at Rutgers. Additionally, all nine of the women faculty are tenured. In terms of rank, four of the women are full professors, four are associate professors, and one is an assistant professor. With the exception of physical chemistry, all of the major divisions of chemistry are represented by these women faculty.

There can be no doubt that historically, women have been underrepresented in the sciences in general and in chemistry in particular. There can be no doubt that today, women are still underrepresented in the science departments of the majority of universities. I can see some logic in examining the role of women faculty in the top-ranked chemistry departments, provided that the discussion is not limited to these departments. Not every chemistry professor, male or female, wants to work at Rutgers or Penn State, or at Harvard or Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Yale for that matter. Limiting the debate to the top 10 departments is essentially meaningless, since by definition the top 10 departments can never be representative of the whole.

Terrence A. Lee
Murfreesboro, Tenn.


I would like to share some information in light of the guest editorial by Valerie J. Kuck titled "Women in Science" (C&EN, Feb. 28, page 3).

I am a physical chemist at Evergreen State College, a public liberal arts college in Olympia, Wash. Of the nine chemists working at our college, seven are women. It may serve C&EN readers to know that we have successfully recruited and retained women chemists at our institution.

Dharshi Bopegedera
Olympia, Wash.


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