Friday, February 27, 2009
What happened to Sheri Sangji?
This post has been a long, long time in coming, but I wanted to wait a respectful amount of time.
Now that Ms. Sangji's passing has been noted in C&EN (2/16/09 issue, pg. 59), I feel that now is the appropriate time for this post. In addition, the LA Times published an article on Sunday that has quite a bit of detail on the matter. However, the article goes off the rails towards the end, but I don't really blame Ms. Christensen -- she(?) is a reporter and cannot be held completely responsible for missed details that a chemist would recognize.
I write this post not as a list of recriminations against the Harran lab or UCLA; however, I think this incident touches on a number of sensitive issues in chemistry. I feel that, even after the LA Times article, there are still a number of questions left unanswered:
1. How much, if at all, did 1) the holiday, 2) lack of safety training or 3) language or communications issues on the part of her coworkers contribute to her injuries?
2. Did her work fall under "critical research needs", as laid out by UCLA department policy?
3. If the LA Times is correct and the coroner's report reveals that she succumbed to "respiratory failure, infection and other complications", are we to include death as a potential consequence of mishandling t-butyllithium? Perhaps I am naive about burn injuries, but I find Ms. Sangji's death to be surprising. Is this a consequence of the unique details of this case or will there be a more general impact? Is this simply an issue with tBuLi or all alkyllithium reagents?
4. How much did her sweater contribute to her injuries? Is Dr. Langerman's characterization of her synthetic sweater as "solid gasoline" an accurate statement or reporter-bait hyperbole? How much did her nitrile gloves contribute to her injuries? What is the best PPE combination for tBuLi?
Again, I write this post not as idle gossip, but for three reasons:
1. I think it is in the interest of bench chemists and the overall chemistry community that we learn as much as possible from this tragedy.
2. Again, I am stunned at the unfortunate outcome -- I have reconsidered my personal assessment of the dangers of tBuLi.
3. I want to get some of my thoughts on the incident in writing, as the data trickles in.