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Accident At UCLA

September 17, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 38

I am offended by a system that believes that prosecuting a chemistry professor for the accidental death of a student will somehow change the inherent danger a modern research lab presents (C&EN, Aug. 13, page 34). Although it is unfortunate that a chemical accident claimed the life of anyone, the responsibility for chemical safety ultimately rests with the individual.

As a graduate student in the 1990s, I was on the safety committee for three years and lectured to first-year graduate students in a short course on chemical safety. Our overzealous safety labeling and material safety data sheets tend to add more noise to the signal, often obscuring the true dangers. The label on a bottle of sand from Sigma-Aldrich will cause you to avoid the beach for good.

For this reason, I focused on chemicals that will kill you if mishandled. Butyllithium and most other pyrophoric liquids fall into this category. These special chemicals can be used safely but demand respect and practice. Fifty microliters of butyllithium squirted into an empty fume hood will create an impressive fireball that should make the user think more than twice about proper handling. The larger syringe the student was using will easily pull out when it reaches near-maximum capacity.

Nothing that can be said will bring the student back to life, especially prosecuting this professor. But this event and other tragedies in the history of chemistry should remind all chemists to be knowledgeable and respectful in their research because the stakes are so high.

By Mark Morey
Santa Barbara, Calif.

The political, regulatory, and legal professions have now dealt with the tragic University of California, Los Angeles, chemical accident for several years, and their efforts are essentially finished; remedies and blame are now apportioned. However, I note that the “guilty” damaged syringe body and apparently unharmed plunger are shown in one of your photos.

The real cause is the faulty design in the manufacture of these very useful devices that do not provide a much longer barrel or a simple locking device to prevent the plunger from being totally withdrawn. Such an engineered design would have prevented, and in the future could prevent, accidental plunger withdrawals and such accidents and their proposed very high cost remedies. This syringe-filling problem has also occurred many times when I’ve used these devices. The syringe system is “sticky” because of the fluid dynamics of the filling in upward (not the medical downward) flow process. My search for purchase of such properly designed lab syringes has failed to produce any source.

By Warren L. Dowler
Pahrump, Nev.



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