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.

From: http://list.uvm.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0901&L=DCHAS-L&P=13210

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: www.sherisangji.com (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)


  1. Wow, that is terrible. I assume it was probably the heptane or pentane the t-BuLi was in that caused the actual fire.

    A grim reminder of the dangers all around us in the chem lab.

    • heptane and pentane don’t generally spontaneously combust. The article mentions t-butyl lithium is highly flammable, but my guess it is pyrophoric (spontaneously burns in contact with oxygen). This explains why they fill the flask with a slight overpressure of Argon (if anything leaks, it leaks out and not in, and it’s diluted by argon on the way out…).
      Moral of the story: Safety with chemicals is ALWAYS *the* priority! No research is worth your health, let alone your life!!!

      P.S. The Mol. Sci. BUILDING holds much of the chemistry DEPT. And we DID have school-wide lab safety checks in January… (I’m in engineering)

      • You are correct, micha. t-Butyllithium is pyrophoric, even in a solution of hydrocarbons. If you squirt out a syringe of the solution into the open air, you basically have a flame thrower in your hands.

        • t-butyllithium reacts with H2O… so it is the humidity that sets it off.

        • I did this a couple of times with less than a mL in the fume hood when I was a grad student at UCLA. It does flare up in the air right out of the needle.

  2. Yikes. Thoughts and prayers with her and her family.

  3. Holy crap. Thoughts and prayers with her and her family.

    I’ve always treated the stuff with respect, but I didn’t know that this could happen!

  4. does anyone have any idea what scale she was working on? what were the parameters of this accident?

  5. The bottle was only 250mL, and the syringe was 60mL. It ignites spontaneously in air, but it is not really all that explosive. If it is not an explosive, while yes sever damage can be caused by 250mL (at most) of flaming organic solvent, and could blind you or cause serious trouble for life, it would take just right conditions to kill you.

    I would hazard to guess that the real damage came from catching her, as the article described “synthetic shirt” on fure. I suspect it was a highly flammable, improper lab attire that caused the most of the damage.

    I use it all the time, and I always love seeing the flame out of the needle. But we always do it in the fume hood, with the explosive shield down, and gloves designed to protect from fire and minor explosions. And small amount.

    Although, what I find funny from the article:
    “All chemistry labs will be inspected this month and inspection of the rest of the labs will occur later on.”

    But, this was also said:
    “Only a week before the incident, another laboratory accident occurred in which there was a small chemical explosion. Much like the Dec. 29 incident, this mishap also occurred in the Molecular Sciences Building.”

    Seems to me they should start with the Molecular Science Department and not the Chemistry department.

    Maybe I am just reading it wrong, and the molecular science departments labs fall under “chemistry”. But still.

    • Which lab did this happen? Who is the PI?

      I can’t seem to find any info.


      • This is truly tragic and I wish the simple proper precautions had been taken to prevent this 🙁 *Edited* is the PI, not sure specifically what the lab does.

        *PI name has been removed for now* ~Mitch

    • Having gotten my PhD at UCLA, I can tell you that the Molecular Sciences Building is just the name, not a separate department. It houses most of the inorganic and organic chemistry research labs.

  6. Tragic! She was so young–sorry for her family’s loss. 🙁

    This one hits a little close to home–I’m about her age and just happened to be using about the same amount of tBuLi last week for the first time (fortunately, no fires). Typical lab syringes do fail sometimes, and the larger ones can be very difficult for small hands to handle well.
    Seriously, though, Enahs? Blaming the sweater as “improper lab attire”? Do you really check the burn time on the shirt you put on every morning? I don’t, and I know a lot of chemists who don’t bother with lab coats. And nitrile gloves are the only ones AVAILABLE in many labs. Think about it, the syringe was probably close to full (or the plunger wouldn’t have come out), so she was probably dealing with close to 60 mL of burning pentane vapors (no way was the stuff still liquid once the fire started–and holy shit do pentane vapors burn well), and panic is a natural and common reaction to lab fires, especially FIRST lab fires. Plus there was an adjacent dry ice bath with acetone, which is also pretty flammable. While a lab coat may have helped, it wouldn’t have alleviated any of the aforementioned circumstances and might also have caught fire. I wouldn’t blame her attire, but I would question why she was drawing so much tBuLi into the syringe–I wouldn’t do more than 20 mL at a time, since it should generally be added dropwise and is best kept chilly.

    • Sarah Weaver says:

      It is always appropriate to wear a lab coat when working in the lab. My favorite lab coat is made of NOMEX (R) which is flame resistant. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nomex)
      People get careless with PPE especially in academic labs. Putting on safety glasses and a lab coat should be automatic when entering labs.
      Industry is far ahead of academia in terms of safety. All reputable companies insist their employees work safely and provide the materials and training to do so.

      • Even cotton would be fine, it chars and burns slowly instead of melting to the skin.

      • fellow student says:

        Industry is far ahead of academia in terms of safety, because in industry heads roll when something like this happens. In academia the PI is rarely touched or publicly named (see comment by annonymous above). Something to think about… .

    • You are working in a lab. One of the first things covered in laboratory safety is attire. You are ultimately responsible for your safety, regardless of all the other precautions put in place by various other people and institutions. If you work with a highly flammable substance and are wearing highly flammable clothing, that is just wrong and bad.

      All of the various versions from various news sources of this tragic event explicitly say the fire ignited the gloves and the sweater. That is key. The damage came from the burning sweater. Burnt gloves, ohh well, no more hands but not life threatening.

      So yes, I have no problem blaming lab attire and her. Safety protocols are there for a reason, accident happen, it is inevitable. If you do not follow them, you are to blame. If she was wearing proper lab attire she would most likely of suffered just minor damage.

      No, I do not know the burn time of my clothing. But I also know not to wear easily flammable clothing in a lab to.

      I am not trying to be mean and harsh, it sucks she had to die. And while it was an accident, the tragedy could have been prevented most likely by following safety rules!

      • I agree with Enahs, I’ve been working in chemistry labs for more than 14 years now and whenever I shop for clothing I always buy pure 100% cotton. Right now, as I am writing this, I am wearing long cotton jeans to my ankles, cotton t-shirt and cotton sweater, close toed-shoes, with lab coat, nitrile gloves and wrap-around goggles. I am not suggesting that her clothing was the reason for her extended burns, but it doesn’t hurt, as chemists, to always be conscientious of our clothing and safety when working in lab.
        I feel that many chemists in general become negligent over time when working with chemicals because they get accustomed to the danger and they slowly let their defenses down. But I think it should be the opposite. As chemists we should be aware of the dangers and take more precautions. My colleagues accuse me of being a chemophobe!! I know how dangerous they are… of course I fear them if I do not take the proper precautions!!

        **** All chemists, please be careful **** this story has truly saddened me…..

        • Sarah, you’ve been working in a lab for 14 years and thats why you know the proper attire, but this young woman had barely been working in this lab for a few months. The responsibilty of making sure your employees are following the proper precautions each and every day falls on the supervisor, whether its a lab or a factory.

          And Enahs, you’re right that one of the first things covered in lab safety is attire and these instructions need to be given by the PI (of which there is no written record). Clearly, the PI was negligent as the post-docs also didnt have basic common safety knowledge to use water instead of cloth to put out the fire.

          • Actually, I read recently in C&E News that she worked for 3 yrs in a peptide lab. “Sangji spent three years working on peptide chemistry in O’Leary’s lab.”

          • That was while she was doing her undergrad at Pomona. The scale of her work at UCLA was greater and as a recently hired lab assistant, she should have been supervised by the PI before being given complete control over such hazadous chemicals.

  7. How unfortunate. This incident reiterates the importance of laboratory safety and serves as a reminder that an overwhelming majority of accidents are completely unexpected.

    tBuLi has the tendency to be nasty at times (I’ve seen it spark as a bright purple flash). Guess I should pass this story around my department.

  8. The student has been identified as 22 year old Sheharbano Sangji.


  9. Extremely sad and horrible

  10. How unfortunate.

  11. It there a good place that describes safe procedures for handling t-butyl lithiuim and similar lithium reagents?

  12. When using a 20 gauge needle or smaller with large volumes i.e. greater than 20 ml it becomes very difficult to pull the syringe plunger. I never use less than an 18 gauge needle with large scale reactions.

    I actually saw what was described above happen with an aliphatic aldehyde and a 60 ml syringe. At about 50 ml the syringe plunger slipped because of the extreme force needed to pull till 60 ml. The plunger shot out and shot aldehyde everywhere. Needless to say it stank pretty bad in the lab, like dirty socks, for a day or two.

  13. My condolences to her family, my heart goes out to them. It’s a terrible thing that happened. People (I think rightly) don’t think of professional science as being a hazardous occupation. It really comes as a shock when these things happen. I was still in elementary school when Karen Wetterhahn was killed by dimethyl mercury exposure, but I remember reading an article about her for school back then. Sometimes, the risks are easy to take for granted, if they’re not entirely unknown.

    I remember my first session of organic lab. It was preceded by a safety video that everyone laughed at because it was stupid (it really was) and we had already seen it in previous gen. chem labs. When we got into the lab though, the Word of the Day was “organic chemicals”.

    “I do not want to see anyone wearing latex gloves, you will use neoprene gloves, remember we are dealing with ORGANIC. CHEMICALS.”

    “If any liquid has so much as touched your glassware, you cannot pour it down the drain, you are dealing with ORGANIC. CHEMICALS.”

    We were advised to wear aprons and our lab supervisor said she didn’t want to see students wearing halter-tops (bare skin at bench level, yikes!) lest they get a chemical burn in the seconds it would take to get them over to a shower.

    It makes me want to recheck where the eyewash stations and showers are in the lab, so I don’t run away from them while looking for them. I just realized, I don’t actually know where they are off the top of my head. Okay, so I’m new to this lab, but I couldn’t tell you where they were in my last lab either. That’s a sobering thought.

    • Neoprene is bad too, aliphatic hydrocarbons will diffuse into them over time. Nitrile gloves are the only safe chase.

  14. Galina Goloverda says:

    Very sad story, and I am very sorry for what has happened. I agree with people who suggested that the amount of t-Bu Li should have been smaller, but I think the biggest mistake was working alone. One should never work alone in a chemistry lab, especially while handling flammable substances.

    • fellow student says:

      Two other people were present at the time of the accident, but if the words “Help!” and “t-Bu-Li fire” don’t translate into Chinese, no wonder things go a bit crazy… .

      Also: Here the URL to one of the more unbiased accounts:

      What upsets me most is the one-sided presentation of the incident to the outside world:
      – Little to no mention of the lack of safety training first-year students and – in her case – assistants receive before handling potentially dangerous material at UCLA.
      – Clearly, she panicked and ran away from the safety-shower, but the two postdoctoral researchers with “limited English proficiency” first tried putting out the fire with their hands (burning themselves) before having the epiphany to try the lab-coat rather than maybe a CO2 extinguisher and then the safety-shower.
      – Apparently the PI “likes to use these particular syringes because they have a tight seal.” An appropriate follow-up might have been to quote him on his favorite dish… .
      – And why so shy about his identity? If he did everything right and trained his assistant appropriately then there is nothing to fear, or is there?

  15. “From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,
    GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
    not of the philosophers and of the learned.
    Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
    GOD of Jesus Christ.
    My God and your God.
    Your GOD will be my God.
    Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
    He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
    Grandeur of the human soul.
    Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
    Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
    I have departed from him:
    They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.
    My God, will you leave me?
    Let me not be separated from him forever.
    This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ.
    Jesus Christ.
    Jesus Christ.
    I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified.
    Let me never be separated from him.
    He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel:
    Renunciation, total and sweet.
    Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
    Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth.
    May I not forget your words. Amen.

    -Blaise Pascal

  16. This should also let laymen know that the word “organic” has nothing to do with the mild, salutary, harmless produce that you pick up at Whole Foods.

  17. You should never syringe large amounts of dangerous reagents. It is much safer to cannulate into a graduated cylinder. My heart goes out to the family.

    • You should not cannulate tBuLi (or any pyrophoric for that matter) into a graduated cylinder, it is open to the atmosphere and will ignite. Pre-measure the volume you require into an addition funnel, mark it, then dry the glassware thoroughly as part of your setup under inert gas. THEN cannulate to the mark and do your thing. Although I have seen some chemists turn cannulas into flame throwers when they clear the line outside the funnel instead of in. Requires good training, technique, and awareness of what you are doing.

      • Maybe I should have been more clear. Cannulate into a graduated cylinder with a septum attached to your manifold. You can then cannulate to your reaction vessel. I’m sorry I thought that was obvious.

  18. Even though now might not be the best time to point finger. All chemist should really spend some time thinking about the deep reasons behind this kind of accidents.

    Graduate students and post-doctors are morden slaves in the chemisty lab. It is time for a change.

    my 2 cents

    1) all fresh graduate students should be properly trained before conducting any experiments. PIs can not just throw out projects to new comers and expect them run immeidately.

    2) no one deserve to work as slaves. Those PIs who force student working crazy hours shoulbe be held for responisble.

    • though i agree with you about having new grad students trained, i can’t quite agree with you on your second point. though some PIs try to ‘force’ students to work crazy hours, you cannot hold them fully responsible. it is ultimately up to the student to decide what hours they work, and nobody can ‘force’ you to work late.
      being an undergraduate at UCLA while the repercussions are unfolding, i can honestly say that safety has been our number one concern in the wake of the fires. sadly, i wish it had been our priority before we all needed a reminder.

  19. Pingback: Condolences « Making Graphite Work

  20. Pingback: Lab safety and chemical hygene in acadamia blows | The Chem Blog

  21. > Do you really check the burn time
    > on the shirt you put on every morning?

    I know I don’t. And I don’t buy *anything* that’s 100% cotton, as a matter of principle, because that junk’s only wearable until you wash it once. (Take up ironing? No thanks, I already have a hobby.)

    On the other hand, I also don’t work with substances that ignite on contact with air. I think the most reactive thing I’ve ever handled was a small amount of elemental sodium. (Obviously, I’m not an organic chemist.) If I were going to be handling air-sensitive materials, I definitely might revisit the wardrobe issue. Especially after reading this story.

    Accidents can happen any time, sure. But they are MORE likely to happen when you’re working with accident-prone stuff. Caution is advisable. (And by accident-prone stuff, I don’t just mean flammable chemicals. Driving on wet snow would qualify just as much. It’s a general principle.)

    Granted, not drawing the syringe almost-full would also have been perhaps a better idea, and working more-or-less alone in a lab is usually not the best choice, and there’s little question that running to the shower, rather than away from it, might have been preferable. As with most accidents, there isn’t just one cause. Furthermore, at least one of the causes (the syringe popping open) was very likely something she had not been warned about and so could not have predicted. I suppose that’s an important point: you can’t always predict all the causes of accidents.

    • just a thought says:

      Changing *your* attire (PPE etc) when you are doing something dangerous is obvious…

      BUT, all of the serious accidents Ive heard about here are from **other people** handling “X” dangerous stuff.
      i.e. Conc H2SO4 flung from a pasture pipette 6 feet! into the face of someone else,
      An unbalanced badly serviced centrifuge exploding and sending pieces around the room,
      Idiots weighing toxic/irritant stuff on the open bench (happened to me)
      Carrying 2L+ of boiling hot liquid agar and running into someone around a corner (use of 5L containers for this and now banned here)

      You can bet I always wear attire suitable to *any* hazard present in the lab I am in. Although wearing a respirator all the time, let alone body armour, I agree is going to far (at least for my lab). Policy here is do not enter a lab area without coat, shoes and glasses. Strangely this doesnt extend to visiting dignitarys etc…

      This is a tragic story, but it could have easily gone the other way if someone was to drop a bottle of tbuli or something else on a *workmate* nearby… “oh but ***i*** wasnt working with anything dangerous, so highly flammable clothes, and no PPE was OK…”

      Last thought: “Best” cry for help i heard in a lab was
      “is chloroform toxic?”,
      “not much, but why do you ask” i reply in a worried voice,
      “well I spilt some on my ‘shoes’…”
      I proceed to look over the center bench to see a girl wearing shorts and tank with *woven* leather shoes, ie about as water tight as a cane basket. Before deciding if to throw her in the safety shower or not, my next question to her was: “you’re sure there wasnt any *phenol* in that, right?”
      (mol biol lab, we use mixtures of phenol-chloroform a LOT, and she would have been using that just before the spill, but not in the spill luckily)

  22. I’m a synthetic chemist (now a professor) and conducted all of my PhD research in the Molecular Sciences Building at UCLA (two floors down from this accident). This is a horrible tragedy and like most chemistry accidents, most likely preventable. Firstly, I would suggest that no first-semester graduate student should have ever been undertaking this procedure without the direct supervision of a very experienced grad student or postdoc. I would not allow this to happen in my lab.
    I have witnessed similar accidents before in the lab, although with much more benign outcomes. I suspect that she was backfilling the 250ml bottle with argon coming directly from a regulator on a compressed cylinder. In times past, this argon would be fed into our schlenk lines which were equipped with a mercury bubbler to prevent the buildup of pressure. However, about 10 years ago, the UCLA EH&S made us stop using all mercury for environmental reasons, although there really isn’t a good alternative. Anyway, if the sealed reagent bottles are over-pressurized (as in the case here) it will blow the syringe plunger out of the syringe (I have seen this dozens of times). In this case, the solvent mixture was spontaneously flammable and sprayed onto the researcher.
    Although I never met Sherry, I’m sure that we have friends in common. As a result of this accident, I have already revamped safety rules and training in my laboratories, especially for graduate students. I hope that lab safety everywhere is positively affected as a result to Sherry’s tragic accident.

    • “about 10 years ago, the UCLA EH&S made us stop using all mercury for environmental reasons, although there really isn’t a good alternative.”

      What’s the matter with mineral oil?

      • We use mineral oil here. I can’t imagine hooking the argon tank up to anything directly without a bubbler in between.

      • I didn’t realize there was a problem with mineral oil.

        • It’s a pain to hold vacuum with mineral oil. It can get sucked back into the line if you’re not gentle or don’t have a valve between the bubbler and the line.

          • The mineral oil bubbler on a schlenk line is the safest, easiest way to do an anhydrous reaction. It’s really not that big of a pain. Don’t put too much oil in the bubbler and be gentle when you flush the argon back in. Even if you accidentally suck some oil back into the line it’s no big deal, it’ll flush back into the bubbler when you purge the argon back in.
            I too would never dream of connecting a regulated argon cylinder directly to a reactive reagent without some outlet for the pressure. If that’s the standard operating procedure suggested by UCLA’s EH&S, it sounds like THEY should be in some major hot water for this.

    • I, too, used a mercury valve in grad school — but they also make oil bubblers with one-way valves, so that oil doesn’t get sucked back into the line. Essentially it’s a bubbler with a glass ball that sticks in the bubbler tube when the line pressure is lower than ambient.

      They’re more expensive than a standard bubbler, but if you’re going to have negative pressure situations regularly in your Schlenk line you should use one.

  23. Pingback: Because it matters » Blog Archive » A chemist killed by a common reagent in organic synthesis lab

  24. Let’s relax a bit on the PI’s name. Nowadays in accidents, whether in the lab or on the streets, it’s always guilty before proven innocent. Throwing his name out all over is gonna tarnish it before the investigation actually concludes. Don’t think any one of us would like our names to be published all over the Net if we were in the PI’s position.

  25. I wanted to let you know that I wrote an article and gave mention to her. You can read it at:


    My heart goes out to all who loved her.

    Trina Hoaks
    National Science Examiner

  26. This accident occurred in Dr. Harran’s lab. I am quite appalled at the lack of any notice of this on the chemistry department’s website at UCLA. Considering he is the chair, he could at least acknowledge what happened. no? and I used my full name.

    • Matt, forgive me, but how do you know this? There’s not a single mention of it on the web so far as I can tell. Is this an e-mail type thing?

      • I know people at UCLA. don’t you find that a problem, that there is no mention of this at all on the internet? I wasn’t even saying the PI name to throw out blame or anything like that. I said it, because I was a appalled by the lack of of news about this on UCLA’s main website, and their chemistry website.

        • I do think it is a little odd. Certainly, I expected folks from either C&EN or RSC’s Chemistry World to demand to know who the PI was. UCLA did put a news release on their press page. It’s a little odd that there isn’t any mention of this on the chemistry department’s website, but I think it’s defensible as follows:

          I imagine that somewhere in the department in UCLA, there is a memorial of some sort. Cards, flowers, candles, you get the idea. I’m not quite sure that a memorial would belong on the internet, but that’s just my opinion. For that, there is a Facebook page.

          As for some sort of official announcement/explanation, yeah, I think it’s odd that there’s not something there. FWIW, I suspect that it is coming, just not right now. Don’t forget the 2 or three governmental agencies around this (CalOSHA, OSHA, LA Fire Dept., etc.) and the doubtless countless lawyers who’d like to get a piece of this. It’s dickless and stupid, but public and official contrition gets to hide behind the excuse of lawyers these days.

          P.S. Matt, have you seen police/fire reports?

          • I agree with you, that some announcement from there end is coming. but this is what bothers me: all the bureaucratic B.S. is probably stopping Dr. Harran and others at UCLA from saying anything. If the chair of the dept. tells you to keep your mouth shut, you do. I think the whole thing was handled bad. I have not seen the reports, but it is in fact public record, and should be retrievable electronically.

  27. The thing about this story that really upsets me as a chemist is how often these accidents can be avoided by simply glancing at the MSDS of the compound. And I mean glancing, you don’t need to read all 15 pages to determine whether or not the lungs heart or eyes will be targeted or what the LD50 is in bunnies as compared to lab rats. No, you read the first 2 or 3 pages (depending on format) and you follow the instructions and recommendations givin. I have the general opinion that if you do not read the MSDS of any compound with which you have not worked with before, YOU ARE AN IDIOT OF THE HIGHEST ORDER. “But I’m a grad student,” or “I have a pH.D so I can’t possibly be an idiot” not true, you have placed yourself and more importantly, your coworkers in danger because you wanted to cut 45 seconds (the approximate time I spend downloading and checking MSDS) from your total time for the experiment. Believe me, everyone has one person in their department who has probably gone to the hospital several times solely because he or she does not fully understand the compounds that they are working with. What does this mean for those of us who follow procedure and work ASAP (As Safe As Possible), this means that we have to step up and let our lab-mates know when they are doing something potentially dangerous. Whether you are a physicaly large, loud, somewhat bossy person like myself or a tiny, quiet, unassuming person you HAVE TO SAY SOMETHING. This might mean you have to say something to your PI to set up a meeting between them and the offender if you are uncomfortable talking to the person, or you might try calling your local safety office and having them come in to talk to your whole lab about proper techniques for dealing with waste or particular compounds. I admit this was a tragic accident and feel truly sorry for both the victim and her friends and family, however I cannot suppress a twinge of anger that this is a problem that I see all too often amongst graduate students, and not to pick on anyonein particular, but especially foreign grad-students who may not have the lab experience of their American counterparts, are under more pressure generally, and have the language barrier to overcome.

  28. Bob, if you knew her, you never would have written that post. Please in the future be sensitive to those who knew and loved her and realize this might not be the best forum to express your own selfish reaction to this tragedy.

  29. A glove-box was available, but they destroyed it purging it with hydrogen.

  30. As a member of the UCLA community I have followed this story closely. What seems to be missing from most of the discussion is the human element. This was someone’s child, a friend, cousin. Let us all frame the issues as first and foremost a supremely tragic loss. From there, more talk about proactive prevention. In other words, if you are in a position to step up, do so.

  31. So, since this is now covered in detail in C&EN News, and Pat Harran’s name is mentioned in the opening, does that mean I am still “risking my reputation” since they basically wrote what I did here about a month earlier? I think not.

  32. As someone with less experience and apparently more free range of the lab than the recently deceased, this has really brought it back to me how dangerous labs can be. I’m still an undergraduate, doing a 6-month ERASMUS stint in a European university lab, and my training was “Do you know how to use it safely? Be careful,” or “You should really wear some gloves while using n-BuLi.” My main problem is that learning from observation of the phd-students appears to have left me with some seriously bad habits, and I can’t recall using anything similarly dangerous in teaching labs. I’m worried now.

    Oh, and though nitrile gloves do let solvents through, I can’t manipulate a cannular with extra-thick gloves. Any suggestions?

  33. Lovetobesafe says:

    I was at UCLA until very recently. I am now at a different university. Yes, we had safety training. Yes, we were told to wear lab coats. There is no one there to actually make you wear them. There is no one to make sure you actually behave in a safe manner. It’s not practical to have a babysitter for hundreds of chemists.

    Chemistry is a huge field. There are so many compounds that there is no way that a safety class can cover all of their proper treatments. You are merely referred to the msds, which is not always helpful.

    It is always up to the person working with the compound to educate himself as to the proper technique. There is plenty of information available on proper airfree techniques. This information is not really available online, it is in books. The other people in the lab probably don’t know much about safety, because it is not a priority for most people.

    Any of these books will tell you to have a bubbler in your manifold line, either using mercury or oil, to prevent over-pressurizing your container. These books also tell you never to fill a syringe to more than 2/3 capacity, to prevent the syringe from coming out.

    The problem, as I see it, is that individuals do not do the preparation to work with a new compound. They are not reading to fully educate themselves. They read a procedure in an article then try to follow along as best they can, or they have someone equally ignorant showing them. They do too much of their research through google or wikipedia.

    The vast majority of chemists I talk to have little idea about dangers of mixing certain chemicals, storage of chemicals, effects of chemicals. They store acetic acid next to nitric acid, do not wear gloves or only wear latex, do not wear lab coats, and so on. It’s so pathetic. There were so many OSHA violations at my lab at UCLA it was scary. At work in my new university almost everyone wears latex gloves, if any at all. I saw a student cleaning up a dichloromethane spill with no gloves on at all.

    Serious accidents don’t occur often enough for people to get really worried. Day to day, people appear safe. We don’t hear of deaths or serious injury frequently. People are complacent.

    It was only a matter of time before someone got hurt. And it will happen again. That is why, if you want to be safe, you must take responsibility to educate yourself and, if you see something unsafe, to educate those around you. Sherri did not take the time to educate herself, and it cost her her life.

  34. The California Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (CA/FACE) program has posted a Worker Fatality Alert about this case. Please view the Alert:
    A more comprehensive fatality investigation report will be published by the end of the month and will be posted:

  35. Zahra Khan says:

    As lab safety concerns all scientists, I thought this might be of interest to the readers on this blog.

    The following is a petition that Sheri’s friends set up to try and push for an investigation by the DA.

    Its been less than three days and there are already 725 signatures. Take a look for the other side of the story.

  36. robert roger says:

    Three things stand out here. The first was not going directly to a safety shower. in a new (to me) lab, I always determine the positions of the safety showers and eyewash fountains and how I would get to them with my eyes closed (rehearsing the action in my mind). If I can’t do that, I shouldn’t be working in that lab with a pyrophoric or highly corrosive etc substance. The second is that one should not be working alone with a substance this dangerous. Once I had to lead a coworker to an eyewash fountain in a production area where he had to step over a bunch of piping. The issue is time. A difference of a few seconds can change a tragedy such as this into a good story to share over beer and pretzels. The third is the scale. The danger probably goes up as the square of the amount of hazardous material used. That is why most of the serious injuries in the chemical industry occur in production areas rather than in the laboratories. The clothing and protective equipment (except for eye protection) would be of secondary importance. I have actually observed accidents where the principal cause was over- reliance on protective gloves, for example, or where the protective clothing reduced dexterity to the point that a mishap was virtually guaranteed. I fear that this accident will lead to yet another such lawyered-up layer of “protection” rather than a clear-eyed an evaluation of the factors leading to the tragedy. (PhD, 30 years laboratory experience, all body parts intact).

  37. I believe that is what the petition is asking for- a comprehensive investigation into the factors that caused this tragedy. Scale is one of the many issues the investigation should address- was it appropriate, given the equipment available?

    It must have been a relief for your co-worker that you were able to lead him to the eyewash. Perhaps someone in Harran’s lab, or Harran himself, should have led this unfortunate young woman to the shower.

  38. ex_lab_slave says:

    While I was in grad school at UCLA, I used BuLi routinely. What happened to Sheri breaks my heart. It was her second time using BuLi, and she was unsupervised! Additionally, She was probably not using proper Schlenk line techniques considering this being her second time. Don’t blame the PI too much, he probably doesn’t know how to handle BuLi either.

    Too bad this PI didn’t take teaching/mentoring seriously and too bad UCLA chemistry can’t recruit high calibrator researchers to replace the half-dozen top researchers who high tailed it out of UCLA.

  39. It seems as though the major problem with coal-fired energy plants is the production of CO2. Why can’t the CO2 be split into carbon and oxygen? It seems as though the time, effort and money that is being used to capture and store the CO2 can be used to split the molecule resulting in usable products.

  40. former UCLA CHEMIST (still alive) says:

    I have some very important things to say.

    First, I have worked in the same building as the fatally injured worker. I am very (…actually too) familiar with the building, the people in the chemistry department. Some of the folks here in the chemistry department are good.

    Second, we were told to reuse the disposbale syringes in an effort to save money. The foreign postdocs told us to do that, so their salaries would be insured. The syringes are cheap–about 25 cents to 1 dollar each. Everytime you reuse syringes the plunger becomes very loose and they easily pop out. I am proud to say that I disobeyed the PI’s and postdocs orders to err on side of caution and safety. It is clear that the postdocs at UCLA have ulterior motives.

    Third, the postdocs–who in effect run the laboratories–don’t know about safety. On several occasions, I saved the postdocs from injuring or killing themselves. They didn’t even know what was happening. A few notables…condensation of liquid oxygen, mixing hydrogen peroxide and acetone, heating peroxides with a heat gun, mixing DMSO and acetyl chloride, cleaning vacuum pumps with pentane while the pumps are running…

    In my work at UCLA, I found that many of the undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs really do not have an understanding of safe practices. This is an institutional problem.

    Yes, I have done a lot of work at UCLA with very dangerous materials. I always had contingency plans and I always was prepared. Yes, I did have several fires and several explosions in the course of my work. I was never injured because I anticipated these problems and I planned for them. That is how chemistry is to be done…..

  41. C&EN has a great article by Jyllian Kemsley about it. Better yet, most/all of the relevant governmental documents (Matt, still reading?) are electronically attached.

  42. Pingback: Academic EH&S and You at C&ENtral Science

  43. Hood concerns says:

    Has anybody looked into the hood and if it was functioning properly? We just had a small fire and we determined that our hood was reading properly and no alarms were sounding and yet it was not drawing properly and hydrogen built up. We have a Phoenix system and I would appreciate knowing if others have noticed this.

  44. Just updating the list of articles:
    Scientific American: Danger in School Labs

  45. make accident claim says:

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  46. Patrick Harran and UCLA charged with 3 felony counts on December 27, 2011. Harran faces 4.5 years in prison (max), UCLA faces max $4.5 million dollar fine.


  47. Pingback: Chemistry Blog » Blog Archive » Arrest Warrant Issued for Patrick Harran

  48. Pingback: What the Heck is an AZADO? « New Reactions

  49. Pingback: The safety talk with students in your lab | Small Pond Science

  50. MarilynWalmart says:

    I must say your post is nice and info which you share is helpful for us and keep safe your self first
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  51. Pingback: OSHA and ANSI Requirements for Eyewash and Safety Showers | Haws Blog

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