chemical safety

Sodium Ball of Death

An interesting problem encountered by wafflesforlife on /r/chemistry.

I recently inherited responsibility for the solvent stills in my lab and, even more recently, had to quench, clean and reset our THF still. I used a standard sodium-benzophenone system and was happy to see a beautiful purple color when all was said and done. Now, after several uses of the still, the sodium has clumped into a giant ball (2″ in diameter) and floats around in the still, even at room temperature. The exposed sodium still appears fairly metallic and the still has maintained its nice purple color. However, my concern is that the exposed sodium no longer has a THF “buffer” surrounding it and could be more reactive towards any contaminants that could get introduced. Also, I figure with roughly half of its surface area out of the solution, the sodium will not be as effective at drying the still. Has anyone else encountered this problem? After such a short period of time, I would rather not go through the trouble of quenching and setting the still up again, but maybe I just need to sack up and do it for the good of the group. Any advice would be appreciated!

Taken from: Floating sodium ball in THF still. Is it safe?


By May 12, 2012 8 comments chemical safety

Stories from a Chemical Hygiene Officer

A Guest Post today from chubscrubbins.

First, my background. I am not a Chemist. I was hired as a “chemical safety specialist” to basically administer lab inspections and run the stockroom. My previous military experience as a Nuke helped me greatly when it came to getting my job. My position evolved to Chemical Hygiene Officer for the College of Science and Engineering, then to Radiation Safety Officer for the University, and eventually to a Environmental Compliance Auditor for EPA Region 6 private schools.

  1. My Scariest Moment

When a package came into the stockroom, I checked the DOT labels to determine how to open the container. It was too cumbersome to open everything in the hood, so if it had no labels I just opened it on the receiving table. On a particular day, like any other, a single package came in. No labels. I put on my nitrile gloves and opened the container. I removed a small bottle nestled in Styrofoam and immediately noticed that my glove was drenched. Annoying. It happens. I look at the bottle and I immediately lose my shit. The first word I see is Dimethylmercury. I had taken lab safety classes and was aware of the tragic death of Karen Wetterhahn. My mind was racing. My wife was pregnant and hadn’t finished grad school. What if I died and wasn’t there to raise my child? Awful thoughts ran through my head.

I took off my gloves and placed them into a secured waste container. I calmed down and walked to our most experienced Organic professor and told him what was happened. His jaw dropped and he muttered, “Fuck.” We walked to the stockroom and I showed him the container. I saw relief in his face, which then turned to anger. The substance was a standard used by the biology department for a mercury analysis machine used to determine Hg concentration in fish. I believe it was either a 1ppm or 1ppb standard. I really can’t remember. I thought he was pissed at me for overreacting, but he was really mad at the professor who ordered it. Never understood why. Either way, I left work early to be with my pregnant wife and wind down.

  1. Most Embarrassing / Saddest Thing I Witnessed.

I was actually taking Organic Chemistry Lab to improve my practical chemical knowledge. We were performing an extraction using dichloromethane. Nothing fancy. There was a real dunce in the class who had horrible lab technique. It was obvious from the first lab. The dunce went to pour his organic layer back into his sep funnel, but forgot to close the stopcock. In addition, he was doing this outside of the hood with the glassware aimed right at his crotch. After drenching his genitals with dichloromethane, he stood at his hood, too embarrassed to move. I heard him go up to the TA and say, “I think I messed up.” By this point, his penis had started itching and burning and he was really worried. I brought him down to the stockroom and had him strip down to his boxers while he stood underneath the safety shower. I made him stand there for the whole recommended 15 minutes. Sadly, the professor in charge of the lab heard about the accident and came in and bitched him out as he was standing there in his boxers. I felt awful for the kid. He dropped the class the next day and switched majors. I don’t think he was cut out to be a chemist, but I still felt awful for how he found out.
Read more ›

By May 7, 2012 4 comments chemical safety

What is that thing? The new GHS symbol for carcinogens

What's happening to that guy?!?

The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) is the new international standard for shipping and labeling chemicals so that their hazards are communicated in a logical fashion. Since we’re now in a globalized commerce system, where (for example) Aldrich sells chemicals all over the world , GHS creates a single standard for how different hazards (physical, health, environmental) will be communicated to shippers and receivers.

So if you look at the new symbols, they’re all pretty boring. I feel like the skull on the “toxic” label is just a little bit different and the dead fish for the “environmental hazard” is a little graphic, but gets the point across well.

But here’s my question — what’s this label on the right supposed to communicate? Any guesses?

That is the new GHS symbol for carcinogenicity. While I understand that you can’t write “HEY, DUMMY! THIS WILL GIVE YOU CANCER” in fifteen different languages, I feel that this thing that looks like the T-1000 after being hit with a shotgun will just lead to confusion in all parts of the world.

I shouldn’t criticize and not offer a better solution, but I’m not positive that there is one. It’s such a difficult concept to attempt to communicate. The broken double helix motif of the cancer hazard sign is aesthetically pleasing and logical, but it requires an understanding of basic molecular biology that Starman this symbol doesn’t require.

By April 7, 2012 24 comments chemical safety

Officials on House Full of Explosives: “Let’s Set It on Fire!” – Updated


Several local tv outlets will be live streaming (did stream) the controlled burn at 9am pacific time (noon eastern) 11am pacific (2pm eastern).  I’ll be teaching class at that time, so someone let me know if it’s uneventful or, er, eventful.





On November 19, a gardener for Escondido, CA, resident George Djura Jakubec was walking in the backyard when he stepped on something causing it to detonate.  The explosion caused burns and abrasions up one leg, under one arm, and on his head and eyebrows, and he was hospitalized.

Officers started searching the yard and home… then quickly retreated when they found numerous explosive compounds and explosive-making materials in and around the house.  According to various reports, items found on the property include:

  • 9-12 pounds (4-6 Kg) of homemade HMTD, PETN, and ETN (which authorities claim may be the largest discovery of its type on US soil…)
  • 13 grenades
  • 9 detonators
  • bags of metal pieces and ball bearings
  • semiautomatic weapons
  • several gallons of nitric acid, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid
  • 50 pounds (23 Kg) of hexamine
  • books about explosives
  • a tracker hidden in currency during bank robberies

And then they decided to call off the search because the house was too unsafe for offices.  Who knows what else may be in un-searched corners of the house.

Not surprisingly, Jakubec, a naturalized US citizen originally from Serbia, is in jail on $5 million bail and is charged with more than 25 felonies relating to explosives and bank robbery.  He pleaded not guilty.

Officials say there is no safe way to remove all the explosives from the house, so the best way to neutralize the danger is to burn the house to the ground.  They plan to evacuate 200 homes, build temporary fire-safe walls between the house and its neighbors, spray the wall and neighboring houses with fire-retardant foam, pre-heat the house so it ignites quickly, then start a fire.  They plan to wait until a time after morning rush hour when the winds are calm before starting the fire.  They will need to close part of nearby interstate 15 because of the house’s proximity to the highway.  Gov. Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency for San Diego County.


Update (12/4): The North County Times is releasing images taken from inside the house.  Very disturbing.   Very disturbing indeed.  It’s like that one episode of CSI where almost the exact same thing happened.  They’re clearing the house, when the one CSI opens a fridge in the garage.  Then he slowly says to the other CSIs in that low, dramatic tone of voice. ‘stop what you’re doing and slowly walk out of the house.’  They ended up doing the same thing to that house, only they detonated the explosives and esploded the house instead of lighting it on fire.  Click the image for all 12 pictures.

News Stories:

  • 11/21 story on initial searches of house
  • 11/23 story on suspect and house searches
  • 11/24 story on family history of suspect
  • 11/30 story on decision to burn down house
  • 11/30 story on execution of search warrant and list of items found in house
  • The search warrant
  • 12/2 story on preparations to community for burning down the house
  • 12/2 story on safety preparations being taken before burning down the house
By December 3, 2010 10 comments chemical safety, science news