Wednesday, July 31, 2013

I still don't know what David Snyder was doing

Does anyone remember the David Snyder case? He's the synthetic chemistry postdoc who has been charged with a variety of counts for experimenting with explosives in his Davis, CA apartment. He was discovered after he showed up at a Davis ER with an injury to his hand.

Jyllian Kemsley covered* Dr. Snyder's preliminary hearing** on Friday; the writeup is at The Safety Zone. As usual when Jyllian is involved, it is detailed, well written and very interesting. I'll try to summarize the highlights of the prosecution's case:
  • Graduate students noted that Dr. Snyder was interested in explosives (specifically, making triacetone triperoxide), setting off fireworks in his hood and collecting used chemicals. 
  • After Snyder's injury, he was heard asking his friend to dispose of some of the chemicals in his apartment. 
  • His apartment had a raft of evidence showing that he was doing explosives-oriented experimentation at home. 
At this point, it is still unclear to me as to what Snyder's motives were, other than that he enjoyed experimenting with explosives at home. I am very curious to know what scale he was preparing these explosive compounds on. (I presume that, if there was evidence of intent to deploy said explosives, we would have heard about it.)

I think some of his behavior in graduate school was certainly unusual, but does not really amount to a crime. However***, but it is clear to me that his request for someone else to remove evidence from the scene (and to do so in an illegal manner, with respect to hazardous waste disposal) is indeed a crime and enough to get some sort of a guilty plea from him.

(I assume, also, that he has experimented his way out of a chemistry lab. No industrial or academic employer would decide to take such an employee on.)

What bothers me most about this case is the potential threat it poses to the home experimental scientist. Law-abiding citizens who want to do a little science (and God forbid, some chemistry) at home have some difficult barriers to cross. David Snyder hasn't made it any easier on them.

UPDATE: Jyllian Kemsley mentions Beth Halford's very relevant article on home chemists and the legal troubles they can face; I admit it was this article that I was not remembering, yet thinking about when I wrote my last paragraph. Thanks, Jyllian!

* Covering the court proceedings of chemists must be the rarest of #altchemjobs. 
** A preliminary hearing is used to determine if the prosecution has enough evidence to proceed. 
*** I am not a lawyer. 


  1. A lot of people used to leave my former employer and start small garage businesses back in the day, making paints or adhesives or similar things. Thanks to government do-gooders, it's now damn near impossible to start a legitimate small business without an army of lawyers and EHS people, and your garage would probably need handicapped-accessible bathrooms among other expensive things.

  2. Unstable IsotopeJuly 31, 2013 at 9:39 AM

    I'm wondering if it might be useful for ACS to compile a guide for home experimentalists. That might get rid of that gray area.

    Based on the action of past mass shooters, I think law enforcement is right to be concerned with someone making explosives in their apartment. Didn't James Holmes have his apartment booby-trapped with explosives?

    1. 1) Good point. I wonder if they already have something.

      2) Yes, he did.

    2. Not to mention everyone's favorite bank robber from San Diego. I think there was also a man who killed himself and his wife and left a massively booby-trapped house of horrors.

      I'm not sure what the lesson for the San Diego bank robber's landlord was - don't rent to bank robbers or explosives freaks? I guess that's another question prospective renters can lie on.

  3. There is no room for the home experimental chemist. It takes too much resources to do anything meaningful and the threat to the safety of the community is too large (if you think the home experimentalist is handling his waste properly, you're dreaming).

    Here is the best advice for anyone who wants to do chemistry at home: go buy a copy of Spartan.

    1. I'm interested in this statement. Care to elaborate further?

      Re: statement 2 and hazardous waste, you're doubtlessly correct in 95% of cases. That said, would it not be easy enough to declare one's home lab as a CESQG and dispose of said waste properly? Would probably run you $1000/yr in time/costs.

    2. I'm in total agreement with Anonymous--the days of 'home chemistry lab' should be declared over. Would anyone want to buy a home after it has served in a dual-use capacity? Furthermore, the general public would not be able to see the differences between a home chemistry lab and a meth lab. Perhaps 'home chemists' should be required to file disclosures so that their neighbors understand and approve what is happening in spaces near/above/below them? I'm sure that would sort things out in a timely fashion.

  4. Beth Halford wrote a few years ago about the challenges faced by home experimentalists:

    CJ is probably right that the Snyder case will not help to quell fears about home labs. That said, I think most people (chemists, certainly) would distinguish between, say, small-scale polymer research in one's basement and tinkering with explosives in an apartment building. (Granted, I don't know the scale of what Snyder was doing.)

    1. Polymers are neat, but I suspect that most people interested in chemical experimentation at home are interested in things that go bang, or make colors or smells, and a lot of those tend to be toxic to others and/or dangerous. They might not expel enough waste or toxics to be a real danger, but they could complicate the unfortunate homeowner's life who finds them or whoever has to clean their water.

      I would worry more about small chemical businesses starting out of garages than about curious individuals, though. Given the small company discount (lower pay, no or minimal health care and benefits, etc., and the T2 incident (where it seemed the owners took every step possible to do their work on the cheap even when they knew that they might have had problems), I am unlikely to believe that such busineses would be prudent either about direct safety (not blowing up or killing their neighbors) or about waste disposal (leaving undesired gifts for the neighborhood or future homeowners), and given the fate of most small businesses, would be unlikely to have the money to fix any liabilities they make.

      I wonder if interested people could work in facilities made for small-scale noncommercial experimentation - like renting a plane for flight lessons. You pay for rental, and for supplies (with the supplies fees presumably covering disposal), and in some cases a proposal (what do you want to do?).(This has been suggested before on In The Pipeline).

  5. As a QA person, I'd say that Snyder successfully completed his IDI (initial demonstration of incompetence).

  6. The two anonymous above who say that there is no place for home experimental chemistry are likely shitty scientists.