I am offended by a system that believes that prosecuting a chemistry professor for the accidental death of a student will somehow change the inherent danger a modern research lab presents (C&EN, Aug. 13, page 34). Although it is unfortunate that a chemical accident claimed the life of anyone, the responsibility for chemical safety ultimately rests with the individual.
As a graduate student in the 1990s, I was on the safety committee for three years and lectured to first-year graduate students in a short course on chemical safety. Our overzealous safety labeling and material safety data sheets tend to add more noise to the signal, often obscuring the true dangers. The label on a bottle of sand from Sigma-Aldrich will cause you to avoid the beach for good.
For this reason, I focused on chemicals that will kill you if mishandled. Butyllithium and most other pyrophoric liquids fall into this category. These special chemicals can be used safely but demand respect and practice. Fifty microliters of butyllithium squirted into an empty fume hood will create an impressive fireball that should make the user think more than twice about proper handling. The larger syringe the student was using will easily pull out when it reaches near-maximum capacity.
Nothing that can be said will bring the student back to life, especially prosecuting this professor. But this event and other tragedies in the history of chemistry should remind all chemists to be knowledgeable and respectful in their research because the stakes are so high.
By Mark MoreyThere's an interesting debate about the point at which "the responsibility for chemical safety ultimately rests with the individual", a sentiment that I more-or-less support. I think it's fair to say that if the incident had happened with a "Dr. Sangji" or a "Principal Scientist Sangji" that the tone of a lot of commentators (including myself) would be different. I don't think Ms. Sangji had reached the point at which the preponderance of chemical safety was resting on her shoulders.
Santa Barbara, Calif.
What I believe that Dr. Morey misses is the legal aspect, in which Professor Harran has been arraigned on violation of worker safety laws. I don't think that he recognizes that aspect of the case in his letter.