When C. Rosalía Álvarez Chávez started inspecting the safety of high school laboratories around Sonora, Mexico, several years ago, she had no idea of the chemical dangers that awaited her.
In more than half of the schools, she found highly hazardous chemicals. They included explosive picric acid, toxic mercury, and toxic and corrosive hydrofluoric acid. While mercury was mostly sealed in old thermometers, once Álvarez Chávez and her team found an open container about the size of a baby-food jar full of the toxic metal. After that incident, the team adopted a new rule during inspections: don’t touch anything.
Álvarez Chávez, a professor and chemical safety expert at the University of Sonora, says these findings are deeply concerning and raise the question “Why are these chemicals here? We do not need HF in a high school.”
She discovered that most of the hazardous chemicals, some of which were unlabeled, were donated by local companies. Many chemical safety experts see the practice as a way for industry to get rid of waste while ostensibly helping local labs. It’s a common and widespread problem that also occurs in secondary schools in the US and university laboratories in the Philippines.
Handling questionable donations is one of many safety challenges, such as a lack of proper equipment, training, and regulations, facing underresourced labs around the world. These challenges take time and support from schools or government officials to address, Álvarez Chávez says. “So we have to get creative,” she says.
Many instructors and researchers, like Álvarez Chávez, are taking it on themselves to adapt safety practices and develop new tools, such as online trainings and small-scale chemistry kits, to help keep students and researchers safe in their labs.
For instance, after inspecting more than 60 science labs at private high schools in Sonora, Álvarez Chávez and her colleagues published a 111-item checklist that teachers can use to assess the safety of their labs (ACS Chem. Health Saf. 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acs.chas.0c00110). The team categorized the items into four areas: chemical management; facilities and safety equipment; health, safety, civil, and environmental policies; and teacher training.
Using the tool to compare a subset of schools, the researchers found that high school labs in rural areas scored significantly lower than high schools in the capital city, a finding that Álvarez Chávez attributes to fewer teachers and lower funding in rural areas. Schools tended to comply with basic safety rules such as wearing closed-toed shoes and not eating and drinking in labs. But most labs lacked functioning fume hoods, and almost none of the labs had special storage cabinets for corrosive or flammable substances.
The biggest safety concerns arose around chemical management. Many labs lacked chemical inventories, and chemical containers were sometimes missing labels. The team also found chemical waste that had accumulated because the school couldn’t afford to pay for waste removal.
To address the chemical waste issue, Álvarez Chávez has suggested several unique approaches. One proposal involves schools asking local industries to “adopt” them so that the schools can bring their chemical waste to the companies. While waste disposal is a large expense for schools, high school labs generate relatively small amounts compared with industry. Plus, Álvarez Chávez says, businesses can view such programs, which already exist for electronic waste, as an act of social responsibility for the community.
She recalls another situation from a few years ago, when she visited a high school and found diethyl ether, which can form explosive peroxides over time. She asked a local waste removal company if it would remove the waste for free. The company agreed, at least in part because the company representative she spoke to was a graduate of the school and wanted to give back to the community.
Álvarez Chávez says that after she shared with high school administrators the findings of her recent paper, many teachers took the initiative to improve the safety conditions of their labs. They started keeping chemical inventories and reorganized storage to sort chemicals by compatibility instead of arranging them alphabetically, as some schools had been doing.
Also as a result of the team’s study, Sonora’s civil protection agency has asked the researchers to draft safety policies to regulate high school labs, policies that Álvarez Chávez hopes will be established in the state. She points out, however, that the federal labor agency only has two workplace safety inspectors for all industries, so it’s unclear how regulations will be enforced.
Other countries also lack comprehensive and enforced governmental safety regulations. That means safety often falls to individual institutions, whether high schools or universities.
“Each research institution has to make their own safety guidelines,” says Gilbert U. Yu, a materials science and chemical education professor at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. “In most cases, you’re left on your own, so as a natural consequence, it gets neglected.”
Sometimes the best way to keep students safe is to not have them perform an experiment at all. For example, Yu’s university has eliminated the Grignard reaction from its teaching labs. The classic organic chemistry reaction hinges on a magnesium salt compound that is extremely sensitive to water. Chemists usually perform the reaction with solvents that have been stripped of any water content through distillation, which Ateneo de Manila University’s labs are not equipped to do safely. An extra challenge comes from a humid climate.
Yu has also heard from friends at institutions with fewer resources that lab instructors will often turn to household chemicals, such as baking soda and vinegar, to demonstrate certain concepts. These reactions don’t always work, in which case instructors rely on lectures only, Yu says. He recalls one faculty member worrying that the students who only worked with household chemicals or had no lab experience at all wouldn’t be sufficiently prepared for the chemical sciences when they graduate.
In 2011, Patrick John Y. Lim, a chemistry professor at the University of San Carlos in the Philippines, and his colleagues wrote about the safety challenges facing underresourced labs at their university (J. Chem. Health Saf. 2011, DOI: 10.1016/j.jchas.2011.06.001). While some things have improved since then—for example, eyewashes, safety showers, and smoke detectors are more common now—other challenges remain, he says. “We kind of insist on PPE [personal protective equipment] because we don’t have adequate engineering controls,” Lim says, and lab ventilation comes from open windows.
Students at the University of San Carlos are also required to look up safety data sheets and complete risk assessments before running reactions. Lim thinks students at his current university in the Philippines seem to be more careful than students he encountered in Melbourne, Australia—where he conducted his doctoral work—potentially because students in better-resourced labs may take safety for granted.
In organic labs, he says, one strategy to mitigate safety risks is to substitute solvents—for example, using toluene instead of benzene. If that doesn’t work, students will run the reaction as is but at microscale, which helps reduce exposure risks, he says.
Downsizing reactions also helps minimize hazardous waste, says Supawan Tantayanon, an emeritus chemistry professor from Chulalongkorn University in Thailand. Tantayanon, who has served as a president of multiple societies, including the Federation of Asian Chemical Societies and the Chemical Society of Thailand, has made many contributions to the field of small-scale chemistry.
A decade ago, she developed a Small-Lab Kit for use in organic chemistry labs in universities. The kit costs about 30,000–40,000 baht ($900–$1200). It comes with 24 pieces of glassware, some of which were custom designed by Tantayanon, and other lab equipment, such as a lab stand and hot plate. Run with electricity and a water pump, the small lab can be used to perform a number of experimental procedures, including distillations, chromatography, isolations, and organic reactions. The portable organic lab kit includes a workbook with instructions for lab assembly, experimental procedures, and waste disposal.
For the past 8 years, Tantayanon has also partnered with Dow on another small-lab kit for general chemistry labs. Unlike the organic chemistry kit, this kit comes with chemical reagents—enough for 30 uses—and its components are made entirely of plastic. The kit costs under $10 and can be refilled when the reagents run out. In recent years, she has received funding from Bangkok Bank to conduct in-person trainings for high school teachers in other Asian countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Indonesia, and the Philippines, to use the general chemistry small-lab kit.
Adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tantayanon continued the trainings virtually since 2020, with 200 teachers signed up for a Zoom session in July. And teachers have found the small-lab kits to be especially useful during the pandemic, she says. Since organic chemistry teaching labs must limit the number of students in a room simultaneously, students take the lab in shifts that are shorter than former lab periods. The small-scale experiments allow students to run two to three different experiments in the same time that they may run a typical-sized reaction, Tantayanon says.
Tantayanon has been devoted to safety for 40 years. Change, however, has been slow, she says. Her university didn’t establish an environmental health and safety office until 2018.
Álvarez Chávez has similarly struggled for decades to establish safety regulations in her university. She’s still waiting, though hopefully not for much longer, she says.
She proposed—and informally implemented—an environmental health and safety program to the university administration more than 20 years ago, she says. And yet the school has not heeded her calls to establish official safety guidelines, much less an environmental health and safety office or administrator on campus.
The administration’s response has been that while safety is important, it’s not urgent. “We have official rules for how to book conference rooms, to teach, to register research projects, but we do not have official rules for laboratory safety. And we need that,” she says. In the meantime, she’s taken a proactive, bottom-up approach to changing the safety culture, powered by dedicated students and faculty members. “So far I’m happy with the results, but I recognize that we need to improve.”
Álvarez Chávez adds that while official guidelines are critical, ultimately, creating a safe laboratory environment depends on everyone involved, something she experienced firsthand during her doctoral studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She expected impeccable laboratory safety practices at a university in the US and was surprised to see fellow students sometimes not wearing lab coats or mishandling chemical waste.
“What I learned there is that safety is not only a matter of administration. It’s not only a matter of facilities or resources,” she says. “It’s a matter of human behavior.”
Tiên Nguyễn is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. A version of this story first appeared in ACS Chemical Health & Safety: cenm.ag/underresourced.