Chemical Spill or CHEMICAL SPILL!!

Some of you may have heard on ABC news about a “Chemical Spill” at the University of Southern California on 10/15/09.1 Luckily, you get the inside story because the spill was in my research lab.evacuation

A post-doc in my research group was transporting a few chemicals in a plastic basket from one location to another.  The plastic was brittle due to gradual chemical exposure and cracked. Three bottles fell to the ground and broke. One contained lauroyl chloride, another an anthracene derivative (I don’t remember which one) and the third was a 100 mL bottle of tributyltin chloride. The first two are entirely inert and caused no concern.  The third chemical is an alkyl tin reagent which, in general, are known to be toxic.2 Tributyl tin chloride has a high boiling point (170ºC) and a low vapor pressure compared to that of trimethyl tin chloride. To actually be affected by this chemical, you would probably have to lick the floor or rub it on your skin. However, it was a scenario where we decided it would be best to close the room and allow our on campus Hazmat team, composed of three guys and a truck, to clean it up.

Our lab safety officer soon learned, through USC Public Safety, that the Hazmat crew was unavailable due to a publicity event on the USC Health Sciences Campus. I am not exactly sure who was contacted next, but the response was big.  A building evacuation, two fire trucks, 10-15 firemen, several LAPD officers, and a Los Angeles county chemical spill response team later a news helicopter shows up. They were likely listening to the police radio and, once they arrived on the scene, started reporting the event on ABC news.

The chemical spill response team was no doubt baffled when they saw ~50 ml of clear liquid on the floor of our lab. This is the team called in when a chemical tanker flips over.

Eventually, the USC Hazmat team arrived and did the minor cleaning required from the beginning.

The image above is perhaps the best summation of how overblown the response was. It was used by ABC news to indicate a mass building evacuation.  The picture is actually of an on-campus engineering job fair that was happening a block away. Each white umbrella signifies a different visiting company.

Luckily, the media was distracted by a helium balloon, without which this overblown event may have been even further overblown.

Things I learned/re-learned from this event:

  • Know what chemicals you are working with, how to clean them up and their toxicity.
  • Find out who you need to call for both major and minor chemical spills.
  • Don’t use dollar store plastic baskets for transporting chemicals (at least not long term).
  • Don’t invite your Hazmat team to publicity events.




  1. A similar thing happened in my lab. We had a spill and the entire EH&S department was in a department wide meeting and didn’t pick up their phones.

  2. We had a spill of thiophosgene in our lab a few years ago. It was a relatively small amount, and we pulled the fire alarm and got everyone out. After several hours, the reason cited for not letting us back in was: thiophosgene produces HCl, which can react with metal to produce H2. We couldn’t go back in because of an explosion hazard. I respect our FD and EH&S, but I think this speaks to the alarmism of MSDS’s read without consideration of the scale of the spill. That said, I probably wouldn’t have let us back in either.

  3. Lauroyl chloride isn’t inert. It’s an acyl chloride, and acyl chlorides are corrosive. Since it’s a large molecule it shouldn’t be volatile so, like the tributyltin chloride, it should (this is based on general chemical knowledge, not knowledge of this specific compound, so don’t use this as a substitute for professional advice) just be a contact hazard (altho it (as well as the tributyltin chloride) could give off HCl fumes if it reacts with something). I don’t know what would happen if lauroyl chloride mixed with tributyltin chloride but I wouldn’t want to find out firsthand. Good old baking soda would probably (again, don’t use this as a substitute for professional advice) neutralize lauroyl chloride.

    • It was disingenuous of me to say that lauroyl chloride is entirely inert. It will react with water in the atmosphere to produce the carboxylic acid and HCl vapor potentially causing skin burns and irritation of the respiratory tract. You are correct that it is a dangerous chemical but with similar hazards as the concentrated acids we work with everyday. We would not call the Hazmat team for a minor acid spill (< 50 ml). In this case we were worried about the alkyl tin chloride reagent because it is really bad stuff. It is known to affect many systems of the body including the central nervous system, respiratory and immune functions and can wreak havoc on your liver. In some cases exposure to alkyl tin chlorides can result in a coma. It is long term damage like this that is my primary concern in lab, especially since you may not feel the effects until hours later.

      Lauroyl chloride is unlikely to react with tributyltin chloride because both primarily undergo nucleophilic substitution when an electrophile is present. Since neither chemical is an electrophile, it is likely a relatively inert mixture. Unless there is some other reaction I am unaware of.

  4. It is foolish for some people to react the way that they do. I understand the concern over such chemicals but the biggest issue was never the safety of the building and the people therein, more the complete overreaction that followed. In America today everything seems to be an emergency and nothing is harmless. Oh 50mL of clear fluid require a massive hazmat response, oh Michael Jackson died, the world’s falling apart, not at all. The world will continue to survive. The biggest issue with what happened was that the person in charge of security who contacted the hazmat services didn’t know what happened and couldn’t react accordingly. This makes me question what would happen if a real situation occued. And more importantly afraid of what the answer to that question is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *