Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Where is Sheri Sangji's notebook?: further details emerge in the UCLA/tBuLi case

The Christensen article in yesterday's LA Times introduced a number of new facts into the public record about this case; some of these facts appear to be from the family's conversations with Sheri Sangji. They are as follows: 1) questions about the scale, 2) the contribution of hexanes to Ms. Sangji's injuries and 3) allegations of tampering with the lab after the accident.

Questions of scale continue: From the article:
Sangji's letter also alleges that the investigator ignored key information she relayed to him from her critically burned sister, including that she had made three transfers each of 50 milliliters, or about 1.7 ounces. The investigator's report, obtained through a California Public Records Act request, put the volume of t-butyl lithium at 20 milliliters... The family also contends that the investigator ignored a UCLA fire marshal's report, which quoted Harran as saying that Sangji probably was transferring 40 to 50 milliliters of the chemical and that a different method would have been preferred for that amount.
All right, what gives? The scale from before was 20 mL of 1.7M tBuLi in pentane, which I've pointed out previously, is a pretty big amount of tert-butyllithium for an academic lab for one reaction. If the reports of the UCLA fire marshal's investigation and Harran's statement are true, the new amounts are quite large. Moreover, the family's amount (150 mL) is stunning. Let's use the calculations I did last time (2.0 equiv tBuLi (assuming lithium-halogen exchange), MW 250). Now we're talking about either 8.5 to 10.6 grams (Harran's speculation) or 31.9 grams starting material (Sangji family statement).

Not to repeat myself, but it's becoming quite clear to me that Ms. Sangji was performing a scale-up, where she was repeating previous work done on smaller amounts. Even in more experienced hands, this would have cried out for extreme levels of caution. On this scale (40-150 mL), cannulation would have been far preferable -- and would have required that much more supervision, as it is a much more tricky technique.

Continuing on, Christensen writes about the most serious allegations by the family against Professor Harran:
The investigator also failed to take into account UCLA fire officials' initial concerns that the accident scene had been tampered with, Sangji's letter says. On the night of the fire, a deputy fire marshal had ordered Harran and his researchers to stay out of the lab, which was then locked and secured with plastic crime-scene tape, records show. But the next morning, the deputy reported, he found that some 5-gallon drums of improperly stored flammable liquids were gone, and other items had been moved around.
There also was no sign of a container of highly flammable hexane that Sheri Sangji said had spilled and fueled the flash fire that engulfed her, according to a report by Los Angeles fire officials who interviewed her shortly afterward. When UCLA fire officials interviewed Harran on Feb. 5, he said he knew nothing about the hexane. He acknowledged asking two researchers to clean up the lab and remove the drums, but said he had no ulterior motive. "I just wanted to get all those drums out," he said. "It was my fault. . . . And it didn't relate to the accident, but it just looked bad."
The suspected tampering triggered a criminal investigation by UCLA police, who concluded in January that no crime had been committed, records show. Cal-OSHA's Bureau of Investigation has launched its own probe, as it routinely does in death cases, to determine if there is evidence of a crime. Fryer would say only that it is ongoing.
There are two separate facts being introduced here. Let's take them one at a time:

Hexanes in the hood: Of all the new facts introduced, I find this one the most believable. Typical organic chemists split their hoods in two, mentally and physically: one side for reaction running, another for reaction workup and purification. It is entirely unsurprising if a open container of hexanes was located nearby (for a flash column) and were to have caught on fire. Whether it actually did or not is something that I cannot answer -- however, the possibility of such a container being present is entirely reasonable.

Cleanup or cleanup?: I am shocked and surprised at the revelation that Professor Harran countermanded the deputy fire marshal's orders and asked his employees to remove the offending drums of solvent. This shows extraordinarily bad judgment on the part of Professor Harran. While I have no reason not to take him at his word, I find this action odd, unwise and also selfish. If he had wanted to break a crime scene seal and tidy up appearances, why didn't he do it himself rather than asking his employees to do it? I feel this revelation permanently damages his reputation with the chemistry community, as it is an error of commission, not of omission.*

*I am sympathetic to the thought that Professor Harran was not in a proper state of mind when he suggested this course of action. Impulses to cover up your mistakes are pretty natural, really. Acting on them, though, is a different matter.

What now?: I don't know if there will ever be a full accounting of what happened to Sheri Sangji on December 29, 2008. Most of the relevant safety facts are already known to the chemistry community and the lessons have been broadcast, if not learned: tBuLi is dangerous and needs to be used with the utmost care, proper PPE is essential to lab safety and that academic lab safety leaves quite a lot to be desired. Caveat discipulus (student, beware! and chemist!)

But the academic science community thrives best on openness and frank discussion. In that vein and with a nod towards full disclosure of the details of the accident, I respectfully call for the publication of the notebook page of the fatal reaction. This is the only scientific (and legal!) document that can fully explain what Sheri Sangji was attempting to do that day.

9 comments:

  1. There are no conspiracies here, there is not much going on and continued speculation is a waste of time. Look at the notebook entry (if she even wrote it) and let it be. It's hard to accept that something so tragic can be just a simple accident. The public wants more, but it's just not there.

    Removal of the solvent drums doesn't say much. Disobeying orders from the fire marshall? Yeah it's bad on paper, the media will amplify it beyond what it is. But in reality it doesn't mean much, this accident is not that complicated.

    If the improperly stored containers were left there it would have been noted and people would just try to make a big deal out of some common violations EVERY lab probably has. Now we're making a big deal out of them being moved against orders.

    Trying to cover up something? Highly unlikely, just a bad judgement call here. OChem labs are messy sometimes, water flows down hills. Take some pictures of your (academic) labs right NOW and send them to Cal-OSHA, I dare you, send some of your hood while you're at it. Could you tape your lab 24/7 and not fear recording some violation? What's the definition of improperly stored?

    Thanks for keeping the facts straight, I'm not downplaying the tragedy, it really was here. But we need to keep our heads cool and not sensationlize some minor errors in judgement.

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  2. Dear Anonymous, it is bad form to make excuses for poor chemical hygiene.

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  3. Removal of evidence from an investigation scene, where possible charges may result (i.e. criminal negligence) could add charges of obstructing justice.

    As scientists, our integrity is paramount. Our whole careers can be tarnished or even destroyed by one bad judgement call. The professor should have known better---I wager he did. He was looking down the road at the lawsuit he is about to get hit with (assuming they haven't already filed; I'm am behind a bit in my reading) and trying to cover his rear end.

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  4. The law doesn't make excuses for anything, true. I'm not excusing poor chemical hygiene, but the removal of those containers just seems distracting to the investigation.

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  5. @Anon 1:46:

    I actually agree about the distraction part, but I disagree that it was a "minor error in judgment". I think that entering a room that has been sealed by government officials (and asking your subordinates to do it for you) is a really bad idea.

    As scathing as I've been to Prof. Harran, I really don't have any evidence to impute bad faith to him. As I said (and I think you would agree), it was a bad snap judgment.

    However, it would be evidence of bad faith to those who are probably much less willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, e.g. the Sangji family.

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  6. Couldn't have said it better myself.

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  7. Wow, UCLA seems to be making this worse than it already was! It feels like they knew they were doing the wrong thing, hence the possible cover-up.

    P.S. Thanks for the congrats!

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  8. Harran definitely made things worse by doing that. A cover up is unlikely, his lab had been operating for less than a year, I don't imagine that there would have been many violations beyond a few improperly stores containers. It's hard to there and be accused of gross negligence over a few containers students put on the ground. But it's definitely better than "obstruction of justice".

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  9. http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/campus-drops-appeal-in-lab-death-95060.aspx?link_page_rss=95060

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