Post Tagged with: "Jyllian Kemsley"

Lab Horror Stories

After Jyllian Kemsley’s story on the non-supervised cavalier graduate student and his missing fingers, members of the chemistry reddit shared their own harrowing experiences around the lab. I would suggest we all try to learn something from these stories, the most important lesson being always wear your safety glasses!


I work in a chemistry lab and last week an intern was involved in an accident. The intern sealed a glass vial with water and dry ice inside. The vial exploded and glass shrapnel gave him multiple lacerations on his face and arms. He was taken to the emergency room where he received stitches. His safety glasses had some extensive chips removed from them. He was very lucky to have had them on.


I saw someone get 2 large drops of sulfuric acid on their arm, and the acid ran down their arm about 4 in. they now sport scars that look like something with large fangs bit their arm and ripped… I personally have been sprayed in the face with phenyl Grignard, not horrible but burns when it gets on you, burns when you wash it off. I saw a gas tight syringe full of diethyl zinc lose it’s gas tightness, caused a small fire and that was it. I saw the results of someone leaving lithium open in a glove box… melted through one layer of steel and bowed the 2nd layer as it burned in nitrogen… that’s about it, mostly a bunch of close calls.


two postdocs were working in the glovebox next to me. They spilled some MeLi and were mopping it up with kimwipes. They knew it would be dangerous when they pulled it out of the antechamber, so they prepared an EtOH bath (which, to be fair would safely neutralize a small amount of MeLi, iPrOH would have been better). One postdoc opens the antechamber and, as quickly as possible, took the kimwipes out and dunked them in the EtOH bath, only problem was, the kimwipes burst into flames as soon as the kimwipes were exposed to air, setting the bath on fire. In the panic, one of the postdocs went to get MORE ETOH and poured it on the fire. The bath overflowed, she started yelling for liquid nitrogen, I got out of my box and started running towards the liquid nitrogen. The next thing I know, i hear screaming, the postdoc walks out of the lab (right under a safety shower, without pulling the water release) with her entire pantleg on fire. I cant find LN2 so I take off her labcoat and snuff out the fire on her leg. The other postdoc managed to put out the EtOH fire, but he didnt remember how he did it. They both went to the hospital, one of them stayed for 2 weeks. That was my first summer in a lab, right before sophomore year.


Teaching a group of 13 year olds a few months ago showing them the decomposition of limestone and running the gas through limewater to show carbon dioxide. You have to get the limestone really hot in a boiling tube using the bunsen. After the practical was over I told the students to turn off the bunsen forgetting to tell them to remove the delivery tube from the limewater. Almost simultaneously the sound of limewater rushing up the delivery tube into the boiling tube and causing it to explode 15 times over. Screaming girls all over the place and glass showering everywhere. Another safety glasses save the day moment.


When I was in organic lab, my TA closed my heating reaction flask a little too tightly. It blew up. I pulled three pieces of glass out of my forehead right above my right eyebrow. The stopper hit my partner in the head. We lived long enough for the department to let us graduate.
Yay for goggles!


My lab neighbor (synthetic organic, read: the jocks of chemists) was running a huge silica column that burst all over him because his girlfriend was distracting him. He had to use the emergency shower!

Same lab neighbor blew up another column or something with concentrated TFA in it, he has a few cigarette-looking burns on his arms from it.

I personally was making some 10 M NaOH in a conical 50 mL tube (“Falcon” tube) early in my career. I added the pellets and the water, closed the screw cap tight and shook vigorously to dissolve it. Well, of course dissolving NaOH in water is highly exothermic. Yep, the entire thing blew the eff up and got NaOH all over me, my bench, and even the ceiling. Luckily I didn’t get burned anywhere important because I was wearing safety glasses.

I overfilled an ultra filtration device with very VERY expensive compound, lost half into the centrifuge rotor. Effing pipetted that shit out and HPLC purified it (shhh, don’t tell the boss!).

I could go on and on…labs are filled with dangerous things and overly curious hands.


Last year in our lab we had a 4L waste jug of Piranha (3:1 conc. H2SO4:conc H2O2) solution explode, actually more like geyser, all over the lab. Thankfully no one happened to be in the lab otherwise they would have been fucked. Pretty much everything within about a 10 ft radius of where the jug was destroyed. The paint peeled off the walls and ceiling, lights had to be replaced everything. Hazmat team had to be called in to clean up the mess. For about the next week or so I couldn’t stand to be in the lab for more than about 20 minutes or so before my throat would start to burn.

Note: When storing waste piranha don’t cap the bottle.


Well, I’m a comp. chem, so there was that one time I spilled coffee on my lap. It was like, really, really hot.

Screw you all! I’m a real chemist! Honest!


I worked in the stockroom in undergrad and was unsupervised a lot, especially in the summer. I was messing around and made some NI3. I knew it was really unstable when dry, so I took just a spatula tip of it out of the beaker and spread it on some filter paper. It couldn’t have been more than a milligram or two. I was working in a fume hood in an empty lab away from anyone else. I kept pressing on the thin streak of powder trying to set it off but it wasn’t going. I decided maybe I didn’t have enough/it was too spread out, so I was going to add some more. I used the spatula to move the paper slightly, and apparently it had dried and this small movement was enough to set it off.


I was instantly deafened and after a couple seconds had a loud ringing in my ears. A few seconds after that, a research student opened the doors and walked it. She said something to me, but I couldn’t hear so I just said “hi” and smiled, hoping she was just greeting me. She walked away with no indication she knew anything was up and gradually my hearing came back. I have no idea how she didn’t hear anything, she must have only been a few feet from the lab door when it happened. I was so shaken up, I dumped the rest (I had a good 5-6g of precipitate) into a waste jar and got out of there. All in all, not the worst, but for a few minutes, I thought I’d lost my hearing permanently.


A guy in my lab was cutting titanium sponge off an electrode (molten salt process) when it caught fire. There was probably around 2 kilos of the shit that went up in a very large, hot fire. He emptied two CO2 extinguishers onto it, which only made it worse. In desperation, he picks up the metal tray it’s sitting on (still burning) and bolts outside. The tray melted through just as he reached the door. The lab bench and stuff around were basically ruined from the heat.


I was adding “dry” ether to stannic chloride, prepping to make tetrachlorobis(DMSO)tin(IV).S omeone had mislabeled the ether, and it apparently had a very high water content because the lab promptly filled with hydrogen chloride gas and shrapnel. The space abutted some department offices and they had to be evacuated.


There was a pretty bad one where someone had to go to hospital; they were pressing the bung onto a conical flask, when the glass smashed. Because of how they were holding it, a rather large piece sliced up their arm, slashing open their wrist and it required quite a few stitches.

There was also an incident where an evaportating dish exploded and it cut open atleast three students, but luckily those were only minor surface injuries.

Oh, and one where someone ate some copper sulphate and had to have their stomach pumped…but that’s more of a ‘don’t be so stupid’ rather than a horror story…


In high school chemistry class, way back in ’81 or ’80. Due to budget problems, the chemistry teacher was let go and the job was given to the woman who usually taught English. Class was pretty boring – very few experiments, mostly reading and explanations of what “ought” to happen when this is mixed with that.

But there was one experiment with mercury that she wanted us to do. So she went into the chemical storage area, and came out with a container of mercury. It was a very heavy container – well over 20 pounds. She dropped it.

Mercury ran in little balls all around the classroom. To fix it, the teacher gave us all 5×9 index cards and had us scoop the mercury together to the middle of the classroom where she swept it all up with a broom and dustpan and returned it to the container.

When everything was “cleaned up”, we all continued with class. The container of mercury was put back into the chemical storage area. As far as I know, she never mentioned this to the principle, or anyone else..


I worked two years in an Organic Lab and two years in a Chemical Physics laser lab. The worst two to strike me were: – In my organic lab I was putting glassware in some basebath and the flask dropped from my tongs. As it sunk, the air escaping splashed bath into my face. Some minor scars on my forehead and thank god for my safety glasses 😀 – In my laser lab, i passed through the beam path; a common practice since the laser is focused – usually – inside the reaction chamber. However this time, one of the beams was focused outside and I brought my hand through it. I still remember the SNAP sound and the burning feeling inside my hand. Much fun.

The worst things happened to others in my lab. I spent a summer making precursors for this very lengthy organometallic compound we were making. One of the reactions was to bromenate a compound and was HIGHLY reactive – I was adding the bromine solution dropwise while the target flask was at -5C and it still fizzled with each drop. Anywho, after the reaction, it had to be quenched and washed with ether. After I did this on a 100mL scale a couple times, the grad student I was working with decided to try and scale it up to 1L (…). I was out the day, but when I came in the hood was brown. And the floor, and the ceiling, and… and we had much less glass ware, including the entire glass vacuum line. Apparently he didn’t completely quench it, and with one shake in the separation flask (can’t remember the name, been a while) it exploded. Horrible chemical burns and stiches later… he was back at it a week later.

The second worst thing was my laser lab. Me and a grad student were building an electron gun from spare parts for an experiment. We had to hack together the power feed into the vacuum chamber, so it was just a flange with a bunch of copper leads. To power the gun, we used these flimsy connectors we had to clip on and off the leads (until we got the final connectors in). Oh and our Power Supply was 10kV floating (in a lucite box :D). Well, again, I was out sick, and my grad student got his thumb too close to one of the leads and WHAMMO! 10kV to the chest; blown across the room into a wall but otherwise okay.


At first here, I must confess this happened to my lab partner and not myself. I work in an organic lab that does a lot of solid phase peptoid synthesis, and after the desired residue length is reached, we cleave the peptide from the resin using TFA. My lab partner was using a 10 mL syringe to measure the aliquot needed and pulled the stopped out all the way, splashing concentrated TFA all over her face and arms. Thankfully the only lasting casualties were her goggles and a gnarly scar above her eyebrow.
Go goggles go!


I used to work for a major peptide synthesiser in the UK. The worst part of a peptide SSPS (solid state peptide synthesis) reaction is the cleaving of the peptide at the end from a silica bead basically. Most times this can be done with TFA but for some more difficult peptides you need to cleave with 99% HF gas cooled to a liquid with solid CO2 pellets in polypropylene flasks. All contained in specialist equipment from pressurised cylinder to flask in a fume hood. . I’ll stress now It wasn’t me who did this.. but once the poor soul who was doing the reaction couldn’t open the HF cylinders valve because it was rusty.. so hit it with a hammer!! The valve broke off and the HF gas started venting out to air very quickly. The whole building was evacuated very quickly and the fire brigade was called out, luckily nobody was hurt as the hood vented most of the gas out of the building. Afterwards once the fire brigade deemed it safe the damage to the fume hood and roof of the building looked like that scene in aliens.


I was making a catylist using LiAlH4 and reacting it with a diglycol, not realizing a byproduct was H2O. I soon found out when the temperature went through the roof and a explosion followed. Fortunately, I had a blast shield in fromt of the flask. Nice fire though


In high school, our chem instructor warned us very clearly about the flammability of acetone. So naturally, my lab partner and I wanted to see if our teacher was correct. On the last day of a week-long lab, after everything had been cleaned up, we filled a small beaker with acetone and carefully placed it in one of the deep sinks. As I lowered the lit match toward the mouth of the beaker, I failed to notice the puddles of acetone spilled on the tabletop moments before by other students. One giant WHOOOSH later, and we had the attention of every student in the room, including those 30 feet away who claimed they felt a wall of heat blow past them. Fortunately, the acetone was the only thing flammable nearby, and it quickly burned itself out.

When I got home that afternoon and looked in the mirror, I started wondering why some of my hair had changed color. As I touched it and it flaked away into ashes, I realized just how close the flames had come.


Around 12 years ago, I was given the task of preparing Azomethane. No, not Diazomethane, but Azomethane. This was to be used on the surface of Pyrite via FABMS. Anyway, the procedure called for: dimethyl hydrazine NaOH H2O Mercuric Oxide Following a reference (see Surface Science(279)79(1992)) the procedure is fairly straightforward; the problem lies when You have to evaluate the solid Azomethane to determine if any color is present.

After making ~25gm of Azomethane a normal procedure was called when I had to wipe off the frozen vacuum tube. POP! The tube exploded, giving Me lascerations to my hand, side of my face, and shattered my glasses, which gave Me a lascerated cornea!

Luckily all glass was removed and I was back in the lab after 7 days recovery making Azomethane again!

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By September 6, 2010 12 comments chemical safety

tert-Butyllithium Claims Fellow Chemist at UCLA


Story is from UCLA Newsroom (Jan 19th):

A UCLA research assistant who was seriously burned in a laboratory fire last month has died of her injuries.

The 22-year-old woman, whose name has not been released, died on Jan. 16 at Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks. She was transferred there after initial treatment for second- and third-degree burns at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

The accident occurred Dec. 29 while the assistant was working with T-Butyl lithium, a highly flammable compound, in UCLA’s Molecular Sciences Building. The fire was extinguished by a colleague.

The fire is under investigation by UCLA’s Environment, Health and Safety department.

Link to article: Research assistant dies of injuries suffered in December lab fire

Update 1: More experimental details are coming out.

A 23 year old female research associate/laboratory technician intended to add an (unknown) aliquot of 1.6 M t-bu-Li (in pentane) to a round bottom flask, placed in a dry ice/acetone bath. She had been employed in the lab for about 3 months. The incident occurred on Dec. 29, during the UCLA holiday shutdown between Christmas and New Years. Researchers are granted permission to work during the shut down for “critical research needs.” There were two post doctoral researchers working in the lab and the adjacent lab, with limited English proficiency.

The principal investigator had trained the employee to slightly pressurize the bottle (an ~ 250 ml Aldrich Sure Seal container) with Argon and withdraw the desired aliquot using a 60 ml syringe, fitted with a 20 gauge needle. The PI likes to use these particular syringes because they have a tight seal. There is no evidence that the employee used this method. Speculation: she may have just tried to pull up the aliquot in the syringe. Somehow, the syringe plunger popped out or was pulled out of the syringe barrel, splashing the employee with t-bu-Li and pentane. The mixture caught fire, upon contact with air. She was wearing nitrile gloves, safety glasses and synthetic sweater. She was not wearing a lab coat. The fire ignited the gloves and the sweater.

Six feet from the fume hood was an emergency shower. When the employee’s gloves and clothing caught fire, she ran from the area away from the shower. One of the post-docs used his lab coat to smother the flames. 911 was called. UCLA Fire Dept. and emergency medical, Los Angeles City Fire, and Los Angeles County Haz Mat. The EMTs put the employee in the safety shower for gross decon and then transported her to the ER. She’s currently in the Grossman burn unit in Sherman Oaks with second degree burns on her arms and third degree burns on her hands, a total of about 40% of her body. There was very little damage to the lab. Bill has not interviewed the employee.


Update 2: From Daily Bruin (Jan 14th): Lab safety to be revised

Update 3: For those interested, the Chemistry Reddit is also tracking this story: A death in the science family. Be carefull with tert-butyl lithium!

Update 4: Proper Aldrich Sure-Seal technique can be found here: Handling air-sensitive reagents

Update 5: Name has been released from the Daily Bruin (Jan 21st): Assistant dies of fire injuries.

Update 6: Jyllian Kemsley from C&EN has picked up the story (Jan 22nd): Researcher Dies After Lab Fire

Update 7: Sheri Sangji facebook memorial for friends and family (Jan 22nd):

Update 8: Derek Lowe reminiscing on fires with tertiary butyllithium (Mar 2007): How Not to Do It

Update 9: Rebecca Trager also covering the story for RSC’s Chemistry World (Jan 23rd): UCLA lab assistant dies

Update 10: Derek Lowe mentions new fatality from trimethylsilyl diazomethane (Jan 23rd): The Real Hazards of the Lab

Update 11: Critiques of lab safety in Academia: Lab safety and chemical hygene in acadamia blows[TCB], A Death in the Lab[MCC]

Update 12: I was cleaning up some of the rabble-debate whether to release the PI name and accidentally deleted more comments then was my intention. Apologies to all commenteers effected. (Feb 19th)

Update 13: C&EN releases PI name. Insights: Learning From Mistakes (Subscription needed, Feb. 23rd)

Update 14: Los Angeles Times investigatory story on the accident. Deadly UCLA lab fire leaves haunting questions (Mar 1st)

Update 15: ChemJobber: What happened to Sheri Sangji? (Feb 27)

Update 16: LA Times: New details emerge in fatal UCLA lab fire (Apr 29)

Update 17: LA Times: State fines UCLA in fatal lab fire Fined $31,875 and Cal/OSHA will prepare an additional report to present to the Los Angeles County district attorney for consideration of criminal prosecution. (May 5th)

Update 18: ChemJobber: Patrick Harran, peeing in the jury pool? (May 5th)

Update 19: Statement of Patrick Harran

My students and I deeply mourn the death of our friend Sheri Sangji, and we realize our pain cannot possibly compare with the anguish felt by her family. She was an exceptionally gifted young woman with a bright future ahead, and her loss is truly tragic.

Since Sheri’s death, attention has focused on inspection and training records. These protocols are very important in developing and documenting a culture of safety, but in this case they are largely unrelated to the accident of Dec. 29, 2008. Sheri was an experienced chemist and published researcher who exuded confidence and had performed this experiment before in my lab. Sheri had previous experience handling pyrophorics, chemicals that burn upon exposure to air, even before she arrived at UCLA. Her most recent position prior to joining the group involved “scale-up process safety.” However, it seems evident, based on mistakes investigators tell us were made that day, I underestimated her understanding of the care necessary when working with such materials.

Sheri’s death resulted from a tragic accident. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health has found no willful violations in its report. Throughout my career, I have strived to create a culture of safety. I am haunted by memories of this tragedy and wish that nothing like it happens again – in my lab or any other. In continuing our research, I go forward with a heavy heart in remembrance of Sheri and with a rededication to safety. I will also work tirelessly to achieve Chancellor Block’s goal of making UCLA the leader in safe laboratory practices.

(May ~5th)

Update 20: Chemical and Engineering News: UCLA Fined In Researcher’s Death (May 5th)

Update 21: Chemical and Engineering News: Negligence Caused UCLA Death (May 7th)

Update 22: Harry Elston’s Recipe for disaster editorial in the Journal of Chemical Health and Safety 2009, 16 (3), 3. (DOI: 10.1016/j.jchas.2009.03.011) (March 29th 2009)

Update 23: Science: Taken for Granted: The Burning Question of Laboratory Safety (May 1st 2009)

Update 24: ChemJobber: If I were working with tert-butyllithium… (May 10th 2009)

Update 25: The Sheri Sangji Petition: A tragic & preventable death (May 12th 2009)

Update 26: The California Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (CA/FACE): Worker Fatality Alert (May ~14th 2009)

Update 27: A Tribute to Sheri Sangji: (May ~15th 2009)

Update 28: C&EN: UCLA Appeals Citations by Jyllian Kemsley (June 17th 2009)

Update 29: LA Times: Family of UCLA lab fire victim criticizes investigation (June 22nd 2009)

Update 30: LA Times: Cal/OSHA chief to oversee criminal investigation of fatal UCLA lab fire (June 30th 2009)

Update 32: An intensely detailed account of the experiment that caused Sangji her life. C&EN — Learning From UCLA (August 3rd 2009)

Update 33: ChemJobber and Chemical Space

Update 34: C&ENtral Science — Evaluating Safety (August 3rd 2009)

Update 35: C&ENtral Science — Personal Protection from Fire (August 4th 2009)

Update 36: C&ENtral Science reports their timeline of the accident and allegations of tampering — Tampering with Evidence? (August 5th 2009)

  • The fire occurred shortly before 3 PM on Dec. 29, 2008. Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji was taken to the emergency room and Harran followed.
  • After Sangji and Harran left, Los Angeles County hazardous materials crews cleaned up the lab. (Recall that medical personnel had put Sangji under the safety shower. Showers are supposed to run at a minimum of 75.7 L/minute for 15 minutes, so there should have been about 1,100 L of water to test and mop up.)
  • Harran returned to the lab around 7 PM and was asked by fire officials to shut down the experiment to ensure the hood was safe.
  • Sometime after Harran shut down the experiment, UCLA deputy fire marshal Christopher Lutton took photographs of the lab and Sangji’s hood. Lutton also told Harran that the lab would be locked and investigated, although there’s no record of exactly what Lutton said.
  • At around 7:30 PM, Lutton left the lab and went down to his vehicle remove his gear, call the locksmith, and call one of his colleagues.
  • At about 8:30 PM, Lutton returned to the lab to find Harran and postdocs Weifeng Chen and Hui Ding in the lab. In a later interview with Gene Gorostiza, the UCLA police detective who investigated the scene tampering allegations, Ding said that he and Chen removed six empty flammable liquids containers from the lab and put them in the building’s trash. They also put other solvent containers into a lab storage cabinet.
  • Lutton ordered everyone out of the room and stayed on the scene until the locksmith arrived at 9:55 PM.
  • The locksmith finished changing the locks at 11:35 PM. At that point, the doors were locked and Lutton took possession of the only key, put up yellow barrier tape, and left.
  • Lutton returned to the lab the next morning to find that the restraining bolts in a side panel to one of the doors had been released, allowing the door to open freely. Lutton told Gorostiza that at that point he discovered that the room contents had been tampered with. A timeline of the incident included in UCLA fire marshal documents says that, comparing photos of the lab taken in the morning to the ones taken the previous evening, containers of flammable liquids were removed, other containers were moved into a walk-in fume hood, a cabinet door was left ajar, and some items in the fume hood where the fire had occurred had been moved around.

Update 37: C&ENtral Science — Promoting Safe Research Practices (August 6th 2009)

Update 38: C&ENtral Science — Some Thoughts on Lab Incidents (August 7th 2009)

Mitch (Our best thoughts, from everyone at Chemistry Blog, go to her family at this time)

By January 20, 2009 103 comments Uncategorized

32-electron chemistry

We all remember learning about octets and valence electrons in school. We may also remember the first time we saw an 18-electron transition metal complex. This week Dognon et al. discuss the possibility of 32-electron organometallic complexes.[JACS] In order to reach 32-electrons, f-orbital participation is essential. Below is a picture of a hypothetical organometallic complex with 28 carbons in a cage around an actinide element.



Although these systems are not new, as the Smalley group made U@C28 in the gas-phase in ’92,[Science] Dognon et al. examine a series of these systems for different actinides. The major conclusion is that the plutonium system is theoretically predicted to have the largest bonding energy for its Pu4+@C28 complex. Since fullerenes and the intercalation of metals often only need heat to be synthesized, I wouldn’t be surprised if these complexes have already been made but missed as impurities and byproducts.

Link to paper: A Predicted Organometallic Series Following a 32-Electron Principle: An@C28 (An = Th, Pa+, U2+, Pu4+)

Update 1: Jyllian Kemsley also covered it at C&EN — Stable Caged Actinides Proposed(subscription)