Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Critiquing the LA Times Sangji article, etc.

As I said before, there are a number of chemistry details that Kim Christensen of the LA Times did not pick up on in his informative and poignant article about the incident that claimed the life of Sheri Sangji.

Detail #1: It's not just UCLA that has safety protocol issues

Unfortunately, the talk in Mr. Ms. (my assumption) Christensen's article about safety lapses at UCLA are, unfortunately, par for the course in just about every single academic chemistry lab in the US. I have worked in the pharmaceutical industry three times in my life (counting the current position). There, personal protective equipment is a religion without par. You simply cannot be in the lab without wearing 1) safety glasses 2) a lab coat and 3) handling chemicals with gloves. At my current job, there are multiple kinds of gloves for various tasks. 

In my academic experience, the lab coat was worn for 1) really dangerous reactions, 2) washing dishes and 3) warmth. Lab glasses were commonly unworn.* I recall seeing a coworker of mine who was pressing solvent through a pre-packed silica column with a 10-ml syringe: no glasses, T-shirt and shorts. While there wasn't enough solvent for a fire, a drop or two of hexanes in the eyeball would have stung like hell. As Kyle would say, safety instructions in academic settings quite often amounts to "don't drop this on your balls.

*As an exercise for the reader, check out the blog for National Lab Mustache Day (great idea, btw.) See how many of these photos were obviously taken in a lab environment, without proper PPE. While yes, yes, they weren't doing anything unsafe at the moment, I challenge you to find a similar picture from a major pharmaceutical company's labs. You won't. 

Detail #2: Lowering the hood sash wasn't going to help much

The suggestion that lowering the hood sash would have saved her torso is unlikely -- if it's open enough to catch her hands on fire (how far were they into the hood, anyway?), it's open enough to come out and hit your sweater/lab coat/whatever. 

Detail #3: Blast shields are for explosions, not fires -- and they're not just made of brass. 

The blast shield idea is especially ridiculous. First of all, a blast shield is not especially portable, since they weigh about 25 pounds and are difficult to lift into hoods (I've used them many times.) In addition, they are primarily made up of Plexiglas or some other clear safety material (unlikely glass) with a heavy brass bottom, not "a free-standing portable device made of brass that chemists put between themselves and potentially dangerous experiments". If the reporter had seen one, it is unlikely that he would have made this mistake. (I'm unable to find a picture online, but I will soon.) 

Detail #4: Cannulation: maybe safer, but definitely more difficult

Finally, Dr. Langerman suggests that cannulation ("The preferred method is to use pressure to push the liquid out of the source bottle into your receiver through a stainless-steel tube") is the correct method for transferring t-butyl lithium. While I agree with the expert that cannulation is indeed the most preferred method for doing so (I just did 600 mls of alkyl Grignard solution this past week), I suggest that cannulation with positive pressure may have been even more dangerous than the technique that Ms. Sangji was attempting. It is much harder to control (turning a knob of nitrogen pressure rather than using your hands), more difficult to successfully perform (how many working chemists have blown a N2 line trying to cannulate?) and done incorrectly, possibly more dangerous than simple and correct syringing. 

I cannot fault Mr. Christensen for these errors of interpretation -- he is not a chemist. 

Other UCLA incident news: 

"Most chemists I know, when they hear about someone getting hurt in a lab, immediately want to know all the details: How much material was she working with? What reaction was she trying to do? How was she trained? Was anyone else around? In Sangji's case, we should find out." - Jyllian N. Kemsley, C&E News, Feb. 23, 2009. (ACS registration NOT required -- free link!)

I thank Jyllian Kemsley from the bottom of my heart for stepping up and reminding the powers-that-be that the overall chemistry community wants to learn from these errors. 

Last, but not least:

It appears that Naveen Sangji, sister of Sheri, has reserved a Blogspot blog on this very topic. Nothing there, yet. Interesting...

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that Mr. Kim Christensen is, well, a Mister. Duh! Chemjobber apologizes to the good Mr. Christensen. 


  1. I can second the comment about lab safety being appalling in academia vs. industry. While I was lucky enough during my PhD and postdoc to work for professors who themselves had been in industry before going into academia and thus were Nazis about lab safety and PPE, most of my friends in school worked in the most shockingly lax academic labs I had seen. It didn't seem unsafe to me until I got my current industrial position following my postdoc. As you said, you don't even go into the lab unless you have goggles, lab coat, gloves, and sometimes respirator on. In school I had a friend who would sit in front of his hood and EAT A SANDWICH while monitoring a reaction!

    It does seem from the description in the article that the safety and the level of training in the lab in question at UCLA was unusually poor, though. They must have mandatory safety training, although if they do it's obviously very poor...

  2. Before I became a grad student, I worked a few months for the same lab in the position of a research associate, like Sheri (but not at UCLA). Administratively I was lumped together with all the other staff at my large school, that is, secretaries, fundraisers, graphic artists, etc., few of whom would ever set foot in a lab. The school apparently forgot that, among this vast group of "staff" that consisted of mostly desk jockeys, there would be a few people in a laboratory situation. I was never asked to go to safety training. I never got hurt, but I now realize that if I had the school would have been in deep trouble.

    Again, my experience was not at UCLA, and for all I know UCLA has excellent training for its new laboratory staff. I hope however that this tragedy gives all universities pause and leads them to ensure that their research associates are not falling through the cracks.

  3. Among many things, it is my sincere hope that this incident will spark a revolution in overall lab safety in academia. Not likely, but I hope it will happen.

    I hate it to come from the regulatory agencies, but I'll take progress where I can get it.

    In the end, though, Mitch is right: the chemist is the last and best and most responsible for their own safety.

  4. I'd like to respond to your comments made, I think, in a sincere wish to understand the incident and lets flip them around a bit. Things are not so cold and clear as you make out.

    1. Its not just UCLA that has these issues. OK - but it was at UCLA that this happened. It does not make it right for other universities not to have safety protocols in place. And if UCLA is made an example off, maybe the others will pull themselves into line and we could avoid such tragedies in the future.

    2. Lowering the hood sash wouldn't help very much - you admit yourself that you do not KNOW how far her hands were in that hood. It may have helped - you are making an assumption that it wouldn't. Granted the other way to look at it is an assumption too but its a lot of little precautions combined that help in the end, right?

    3. Cannulation is the preferred method but potentially more dangerous. I have two comments to make - why was she working with a chemical this dangerous UNSUPERVISED and if she didn't know how to use the syringe properly does that not shout out 'LACK OF TRAINING'?

    She was 23 years old. The only lab work she had done before was with peptides in an Undergraduate setting where she was SUPERVISED.

    My main points are these - it was Dr Harran's lab - should he not have insisted that his lab members wear lab coats? Should he not have supervised such a dangerous chemical? Should he have assigned this work to her in the first place if he was not going to supervise her? Should he not have given her a quick run down of where the showers were, what to do in an emergency? Should he not have taken her to the shower instead of splashing water on her from a sink? My understanding of chemical burns is that they take two/three days to convert and any residual chemical was not going to help.

    'the chemist is the last and best and most responsible for their own safety' - the chemist should know what he/she needs to do in order to be safe and needs to know how much danger they are potentially putting themselves in for this to happen. When you become the PI, the head of the lab, you are responsible for those working under you in your lab. This happened because of sheer carelessness and that is why it is so heartbreaking. It is also why it should never be allowed to happen again.

    Finally, the comment about her sister's blog was unnecessary. Have you considered that it may not be because she agrees with you that it is her sister is the main person to blame, as you and Mitch suggest, but that she may not be ready to talk about it just yet. The blog says 'this is a test'- perhaps you should give the family some time before jumping to conclusions.

    Please take into consideration that when you choose to write things like this you are affecting all those that knew and loved her that have been left behind.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Thank you for commenting (and also e-mailing your comment to me.) It appears that you knew Ms. Sangji -- I am most sorry for your loss. Although I did not know her personally nor do I know anyone who works in the Harran lab or at UCLA, her death affects all of us in the bench chemist community.

    However, I believe that you may be misinterpreting my post quite a bit. First, I don't think things are "cold and clear". I think they're quite murky, considering that all we have to go on is some leaked reports (filtered through a non-chemist reporter, who has already made technical errors), a brief listserv e-mail and lots of internet conjecture. Here, I have to ask a specific question: do you know something I don't? If you know something I don't, you're welcome to share.

    It appears that you haven't read my other post on the issue; in addition, I don't think that you have absorbed the totality of my writings and their overall sentiment. That sentiment is not too far away from yours: that the current safety culture in academic chemistry labs, UCLA and Prof. Harran share the majority of the blame for her overall lack of training, the unsafe environment and the lax peer standards for safety. Also, you've chosen the wrong post to take out your frustrations on me -- this was a technical critique of a newspaper article, again not the totality of my sentiments on the issue.

    To respond to each of your main points:

    Insistence on lab coats: I sense from some of your main questions that you have little or no experience in an academic chemistry lab. At large academic labs like UCLA, professors are rarely in the lab. Senior graduate students or postdoctoral fellows are typically responsible for the training of new members in the lab. Prof. Harran may have insisted on lab coats (I don't know and I doubt it), but it's awfully difficult to enforce such an issue. Professors typically save their breath for larger issues, like getting their grad students and postdocs to successfully complete their work.

    Supervising chemicals, students, a lab tour: When you suggest that Professor Harran supervise such a chemical, what are you suggesting? That he keep them in a locked refrigerator in his office? Anyone that enters and works in a chemistry laboratory is typically expected to either be qualified to use its contents or be wise enough to ask for help. Professors also rarely supervise the actual performance of procedures -- in the over six years that I performed experiments in my lab at a major research university (working nearly 7 days a week), I never once saw my professor in the lab, looking over the shoulder of either a graduate student or a postdoc while they were working. Such supervision would have been considered stifling or annoying, for that matter.

    I don't know the layout of the UCLA lab, but it is my expectation (as it has been at the 7 academic/professional labs that I've worked at) that I have never once been given a tour of the safety equipment. While one would expect the individual to learn their locations naturally, the typical reason for the lack of a "tour" is that safety equipment is usually brightly painted and located in central areas. I am still perplexed (and we will never know) as to why Ms. Sangji moved in the wrong direction. Again, if you know something I don't, I encourage you to use this forum to enlighten me.

    Taken her to the shower, etc.: Clearly your questions arise from not carefully reading the LA Times article. I quote:

    A postdoctoral researcher, who UCLA officials say was just a few feet away, rushed to Sangji's aid and tried to smother the flames with a lab coat. Another ran in from an adjoining room, helped douse the fire, then called 911 and summoned Harran, Reed said.

    "He said when he got there Sheri was sitting with her arms outstretched in front of her and someone was throwing water at her from a sink," said Naveen, who spoke with Harran later at the hospital. That account squares with the UCLA accident report.

    Prof. Harran was not in the room when the incident happened. Your questions need to be aimed at the relevant postdocs. You may be surprised to know that (for now, awaiting the CalOSHA report) I hold them somewhat responsible for Ms. Sangji's injuries, in that their efforts appear to not have been particularly effective.

    As far as your comment on the chemical burns, your inexperience with pyrophoric organic chemicals is revealed. tert-butyllithium, when exposed to air, ignites spontaneously and consumes the compound. Ms. Sangji's burns were of the typical "burn" variety (as if she had been doused in flaming gasoline), not a chemical burn like exposure to concentrated sulfuric acid or sodium hydroxide would have caused. Her injuries were due to 2nd/3rd degree thermal burns, not chemical burns.

    "the chemist is last and best and most responsible for their own safety": It is here that you may have the strongest point -- it is clear, upon reflection, that this statement should not be applied to relatively new chemists. It is, however, the code that I personally live by and how thousands of other bench chemists live their work lives. However, I reserve the right to take this point back, if more information about her experience is revealed -- I might add that Ms. Sangji does NOT appear to be an inexperienced chemist, with 2 papers to her name by the age of 23.

    That being said, it is ultimately the bench chemist's responsibility to step back from the hood and say "I need these results, but this is too dangerous to be doing alone/unsupervised/in this crowded environment/with this inadequate equipment, etc." If it feels unsafe, it probably is. Sadly, this is a very good reminder of this fact.

    The blame on the PI: It may be a surprise to you, but I do feel that Prof. Harran shoulders much of the blame for this incident. It was his laboratory it happened in, with his employees at hand to help. Professors in chemistry have an unusually high amount of leeway and power; in that vein, they should shoulder much of the blame.

    Naveen's blog: You grossly misinterpret if you think that I believe that Naveen Sangji agrees with me. For all I know, she hates my guts for writing about her sister without knowing her. I firmly believe in giving her time -- however, I am obviously very interested in knowing what she has to say about the issue.

    As far as affecting those who knew Ms. Sangji the most, I am keenly aware of this fact. I tend to write this blog and the articles on the issue as if her family members were reading it (for all I know, they are.) You might note that I have speculated very little about the actual details of the incident and/or her actions. Rather, I have spent most of my energy criticizing the safety culture and overall environment in academic chemistry, for that is something that I can speak to with some level of knowledge.

    Again, I thank you for your comments and welcome a continued dialogue.

  7. UPDATE: I missed an important bit of chemistry when I wrote this comment. The reaction of tBuLi with water will doubtlessly generate LiOH, which is going to cause chemical burns.

    And I quote from eMedicine: "Prompt wound irrigation is the most critical aspect in preventing the extent of dermal burns from exposure to caustic substances. Animal studies have shown that irrigation of both acid exposures and alkaline exposures within several minutes decreases the pH change in the skin and the extent of dermal injury. A burn center case series found that patients who received irrigation within 10 minutes had a 5-fold decrease in full-thickness injury and a 2-fold decrease in length of hospital stay."