Teschler on Topic
Leland Teschler • Executive Editor
Back in the dark ages of my undergrad career, I heard about a classmate enrolled in second-semester freshman chemistry. One of his lab sessions left oily carbon muck in the bottom of a test tube that wouldn’t come out. In his attempts to clean the test tube, he eventually tried concentrated sulfuric and then nitric acids. When the acids by themselves didn’t do anything, he tried heating them.
Readers who still recall common chemical formulas from their college days may have already guessed what happened. The acids and oily carbon combined to form an unstable compound resembling nitroglycerin, C3H5N3O9. If you believe in guardian angels, you’d have to say his was on duty that day. By some miracle, that kid happened to bend over to retrieve something from the bottom drawer of his workstation just as the concoction in the test tube went off. And all the other students in the lab had already left. There was a lot of damage near the workstation, but no one was injured.
This near-miss sounds suspiciously like an urban legend — it supposedly happened to a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend. But it came to mind recently when reading about the deaths of two people and injuries to nine others stemming from a lab explosion at the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in China. Unfortunately, those weren’t one-off events. In March, a grad student was killed following an explosion at the Institute of Chemistry of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. A few years ago three students died conducting a sewage-treatment experiment at Beijing Jiaotong University. Three years prior to that accident, two students died in separate incidents at Tsinghua University and the China University of Mining and Technology.
It looks as though China is becoming more concerned about the safety record of its university labs. Last month, researchers there analyzed 110 publicly reported university lab accidents in that country that happened since 2000. Ten fatalities and 102 injuries arose from these accidents. The researchers also found that university lab accidents have been rising in China, probably because the number of graduate students enrolled in lab-related disciplines in China ballooned from 90,000 in Y2K to about 5.3 million in 2019 — and the number of labs grew along with them.
Problem is, it’s hard to see whether such accident rates are good or bad compared to the rest of the world. Few countries keep detailed records on university lab accidents. According to researchers at the University of Windsor in Canada who studied academic lab safety, no organization systematically collects data about the annual incidence of academic lab accidents. (OSHA only collects accident data on workplaces, not about mishaps involving students.) The researchers say no comprehensive data is currently available on the type or frequency of accidents or near-misses in academic labs.
Nevertheless, what data that is available is attention getting. Since 2001, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board reported 120 academic research lab accidents resulting in 87 evacuations, 96 serious injuries and three deaths. But these represent only accidents universities have been required to report because they were severe.
Which brings us back to the urban legend nitroglycerin event. An accident resembling the setup for this yarn happened in 2010 at Texas Tech University. There a grad student lost three fingers, suffered hand and face burns, and damaged one eye during an experiment on detonable materials. The student was using 10 gm of materials in experiments though the recommended amount was only 100 mg.
All in all, if you managed to get through all your undergrad chemistry work without any accidents or near misses, you should congratulate yourself on your good fortune. And if the student in the nitroglycerin story is real, he should never bother buying a lottery ticket: He clearly used up a lifetime’s worth of luck in that freshman chemistry lab. DW
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