Tuesday, May 26, 2009


- Here are two documents describing proper use of pyrophoric reagents, t-butyllithium among them. The first is the SOP for UC Davis. The 2nd is a document written by Russ Phifer, who is a noted safety expert and has been quoted in a number of articles on the UCLA / Sheri Sangji case. Note that Mr. Phifer recommends cannulation for quantities of pyrophorics above 50 mL.

- Just in case there's anyone who missed it: TMS-diazomethane is a serious inhalation hazard. Two chemists, Roland Daigle and Jason Siddell, have died in the past two years from inhaling the compound. Use extreme caution with this compound and make sure your hood is well-ventilated. Read more at Derek Lowe's blog here and here.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Chemjobber C&EN Index: 5/18/09

Industrial (non-academic, non-governmental) positions:

Total number of ads: 0
- Postdocs: 0
- Permanent positions: 0
- Ratio of US/non-US: 0/0
Area: 0

Governmental positions (US, international):
Total number of ads: 0
- Postdocs: 0
- Permanent positions: 0
- Ratio of US/non-US: 0/0
Area: 0

Academic positions:
Total number of ads: 4
- Postdocs: 3
- Tenure-track faculty: 3
- Temporary faculty: 0
- Lecturer positions: 0
- Staff positions: 0
- Ratio of US/non-US positions: 4/2
- Area (square cm): 185

Same song, different verse: No industrial jobs here! Ugh. 

Skytree landsailor wanted: Wake Forest University is looking for a "teacher-scholar postdoctoral fellow" in inorganic chemistry. Why universities need to pretty up the perfectly cromulent term "teaching postdoc" is beyond me. 

Small college of the week: Austin Peay State University (Clarksville, TN, student population: 9,192 -- SA-LUTE!) is looking for a director for their chemical engineering technology program. Looks like a nice opportunity for a M.S.-level chemical engineer! 

Chemjobber C&EN Index: 5/11/09

Industrial (non-academic, non-governmental) positions:

Total number of ads: 1
- Postdocs: 0
- Permanent positions: 1
- Ratio of US/non-US: 1/0
Area: 75

Governmental positions (US, international):
Total number of ads: 0
- Postdocs: 0
- Permanent positions: 0
- Ratio of US/non-US: 0/0
Area: 0

Academic positions:
Total number of ads: 4
- Postdocs: 0
- Tenure-track faculty: 3
- Temporary faculty: 1
- Lecturer positions: 2
- Staff positions: 0
- Ratio of US/non-US positions: 3/2
- Area (square cm): 241

This isn't helping: It has been since March 2 that I've had anything positive to say about the number of industry jobs advertised in C&E News. Same goes for this issue. One ad for a "medical packaging technical leader" -- yeah, that'll help the poor grad student who got hooded this weekend.

Small college of the week: Austin Community College (Austin, TX, student population: 31, 908 -- SA-LUTE!) is looking for two, count 'em, two MS-level instructors in organic chemistry. Austin sounds like fun -- if you like hot weather and live music, these two positions might be for you!  

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Lab safety: a conversation with an EH&S professional

I was recently contacted by a lab safety professional at a very large research institution; we will call this person "E." E. and I had a very nice e-mail conversation and also a phone conversation; below is the result. Details have been removed to protect E.'s identity; the phone conversation is reconstructed from my memories and my notebook. This post has been run past E. for accuracy. 

By e-mail:

CJ: What kind of training are you required to do? Who makes you do it? 

E: We are required to provide training on the OSHA standards that pertain to employees working in labs. By law, we have to tell people the information contained in those particular standards. The standards that apply are laboratory safety, ppe, hazard communication and bloodborne pathogens. The information is basic, which is the chief complaint of the researchers who attend. The alternative is to make sure each and every researcher actually reads all the applicable standards. If you're familiar with them, it's about as much fun as reading the instructions for filing your taxes. I doubt any of them would actually ever take the time to read and understand the requirements.

CJ: What kind of training would you like to do and how much? 

E: On occasion, a lab will ask for a specific training course, which is a lot more fun for me to develop and a lot more interesting for them - because it's applicable to their work. One of the labs has many researchers and they use a lot of hydrofluoric acid. There is a concern that some of the users are too casual with it, not understanding that HF is not just any other acid. On their request, I developed a quick 15-minute presentation on the specifics of using HF, its physiological mode of action if you get it on yourself, and what to do if you or someone else is unfortunate enough to be exposed. I love to provide that kind of specific information and interact with people in that manner. The problem is that I provide health and safety support to [lots of] labs on campus. There isn't enough time to do specific training for each lab, for the thousands of chemicals in use. This doesn't even begin to address use of specific pieces of equipment. I'm not qualified to teach researchers how to use the equipment they operate; there's too much for one person to know. Want to hear a real frightening fact? One of the PIs told me that they don't always know how to operate the equipment they order, or even understand the safety implications.

CJ: Do people listen to you?

E: Do people listen to me? Hmm, that's a good question. For the most part I would say no. There's a huge push to get research done, and the grad students and post docs will do whatever it takes to get it done. Lots of pressure from the PIs. There are some faculty members who insist on a safe lab with things being done appropriately. These are the people I hear from routinely and they value my assistance and the information I can provide.
The other part of people not listening is the "invincibility" factor. People under 30, for the most part, don't really believe anything bad will ever happen to them. Since the majority of people working in the labs are younger, this is a huge problem.

CJ: What resources do you think we (bench scientists) don't use enough? 

E: I think bench scientists don't use your EHS people enough. Many of us know a lot more than we ever get to tell you about because we are so busy running around "putting out fires" so to speak. If the researcher would think through the entire process from start to finish, they might ask more questions and avoid problems. Like "what do I do with a used filter that is contaminated with fuming nitric acid? Can I throw that into a plastic bucket that we use for gloves, paper towels, etc?" No - you'll generate enough heat to ignite the waste in the bucket. Or "my process will end up with nitric acid and organic solvent in the same container. Is there a problem with that?" Well, not if you leave the cap off until the reaction finishes. Otherwise your bottle will blow up - which happens a half dozen times a year. The labs learn that lesson one by one.
For the most part, I'm told people don't ask questions because the "safety" person will end up costing them time or money with their recommendations. [Terrifying, yet possibly identifying anecdote redacted. - CJ] So, I just get to stumble on these as I go along and then fight to get the work moved somewhere else.

CJ: What legal remedies (laws, etc.) would you suggest? 
E: Legal remedies. I don't really know about this one. The case law I've read suggests the burden usually falls on the grad student, because they knew or should have anticipated a problem and taken measures to protect themself and others. I think university administrators need to stop looking the other way, and not allow business as usual. There needs to be some real accountability on the part of the supervisor (in this case, the PI) as there is in private industry. If a supervisor knew they would be held personally accountable, and it could impact their bottom line (or their reputation), they would have some motivation to insist on things being done safely.
CJ: How much do you inspect the labs that you're in? 

Each lab gets an annual inspection with a follow up afterward to ensure corrective action. However, the labs know ahead of time when the inspection will be happening and hide things. The reason for the announced inspection is so that I have a chance to interact with the research group and ask questions about their work. This helps me identify potential problems and provide suggestions for remedial action. There are just too many people doing too many things in too many places for me to keep up with. 

By phone: 

E. and I had a very nice conversation by phone, which ended up to be much more of a conversation about EH&S and less an interview. Key points:

An SOP binder: One thing that E. suggested for principal investigators was a "standard operation procedure" binder, where the grad student would read the appropriate way to do something (e.g. transfer t-butyllithium) and then sign that they had read and understood the document. 

Why not surprise inspections?: I was surprised to learn that surprise inspections were something that E.'s adminstration was not interested in -- I've always thought that surprise inspections would be exactly the way to catch grad students (including myself) burying bodies they shouldn't be. 

Never an unlucky day?: As for the most annoying thing E. has heard, E. couldn't really think of anything. E. is most bothered by the number of times that students have said that they didn't put on their PPE because it was too uncomfortable, inconvenient or they didn't think it would be their "unlucky day." 

Don't let it be your unlucky day, folks. Be safe out there. Please leave your comments about how you think EH&S could be better done...

Monday, May 18, 2009

San Diego Job Market: an update

To answer Derek's question in terms of the San Diego biotech industry (I know that he was focusing on the SF Bay Area), it ain't looking good, with the number of job ads in the San Diego local ACS section newsletter staying flat. Again, I'm aware that this is a poor proxy at best for the overall state of the California biotech economy, but it's what I got.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Naveen Sangji speaks out -- UCLA/Sheri Sangji update

The sister of Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji (the deceased in the UCLA/tBuLi case) has started a website about her sister's tragic death:
Sheri was 23 years old when she got severely injured in a lab fire at UCLA on Dec 29, 2008. After 18 excruciating days in an intensive care unit, Sheri lost her life to her injuries.
Our family is devastated. Our lives will never be what they were. As Sheri's family, friends, and loved ones, while we grieve for this unimaginable loss, we've been searching for answers. A Cal/OSHA investigation found three serious violations in the lab Sheri was working in, and fined UCLA almost $32,000. However, we still do not know exactly what happened that day.
With your support, we hope to get answers. Sheri was a young girl living life to the fullest- looking forward to a game of soccer, starting law school, a trip to the beach, hanging out with her friends, laughing- when it was cruelly cut short. No one should have to suffer the pain and horror Sheri suffered. No family should have to bear such a profound loss. Please help prevent this kind of a tragedy from happening to anyone else.
Sheri's friends have started a petition to get California legislators to support this quest for justice and reform. Please sign the petition here: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/sherisangji
You can also write/call your legislators and the UCLA Chancellor (see link): What You Can Do
Thank you very much,
Naveen Sangji
As mentioned by Ms. Sangji, a petition site has been started to ask for a full investigation by the DA, accountability for "all those involved" (Prof. Harran, call your lawyer?) and legislation.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Original what?!?

There's excitement in the prebiotic chemistry world over a paper that bridges what sounds like some key gaps in the primordial "minerals to RNA to DNA to angry fighting monkey man" chain. But what really got me thinking quizzically was this passage in the New York Times article covering it:
"A serious puzzle about the nature of life is that most of its molecules are right-handed or left-handed, whereas in nature mixtures of both forms exist. Dr. Joyce said he had hoped an explanation for the one-handedness of biological molecules would emerge from prebiotic chemistry, but Dr. Sutherland’s reactions do not supply any such explanation. One is certainly required because of what is known to chemists as "original syn," referring to a chemical operation that can affect a molecule’s handedness."
Original what? I've never heard that before. There doesn't seem to be anything Googleable* about it. Besides, it doesn't even make sense from a terminology standpoint. "Syn" is a relative definition of chirality, not an absolute one.

Readers, what say you? Was the NYT reporter making this up out of whole cloth? I'll bet it was some scamp of a professor foisting his bad puns as common usage.

*My Google-fu is competent (but not great), so I admit that there could be something out there that I missed. But "original syn" -album plus chirality or homochirality or any other prebiotic Donna Blackmond awesomeness buzzwords only returns the NYT article...

UPDATE: Chemblogiverse eminence grise Paul Bracher graciously responds to an e-mail:

I’ve worked on origin-of-life chemistry for 4+ years, gone to scores of talks on the subject (one by Joyce), and read hundreds of articles (many by Joyce). I, too, can’t remember ever hearing of “original syn” before. The term that most people use is “prebiotic synthesis” or “prebiotically-feasible/plausible synthesis”. I don’t even think people refer to it as “prebiotic syn”.
And later, Paul updates:

Actually, reading that over again, I assumed that the “syn” referred to making the molecule (synthesis) rather than what the article says (a reference to the stereochemistry—there, as you point out, “syn” makes no sense). Obviously, someone wanted to make a pun (hard to tell whether it was the reporter or a scientist) and crammed it in.
So, to be thorough, there are two possibly pertinent terms. The first, is “prebiotic synthesis”, which is the synthesis of biologically important molecules using conditions that were plausible on the prebiotic Earth. The second term is “homochirality”. What these guys are calling the search for the “original syn” is more properly the search for the “origin of homochirality.”
Anyway, can’t we just agree not to make bad puns unless they are also precise?

I agree, especially on the puns. Thanks, Paul!

UPDATE 2: I've put an e-mail into Nicholas Wade -- let's see if anything comes of it. In addition, there is an accompanying article with a stunning (for a newspaper, anyway) scheme of the reactions they tried from the Nature article. Always nice to see structures (and not the fake pseudo-structures that graphic artists are strangely in love with.)

I also want to note that in the Nature article and the commentary in the same issue, I don't think the term is used.

P.S. Maybe it was "original sin" as in sinistral? Who knows...

UPDATE 3: Nicholas Wade graciously responds to CJ's e-mail question: "who suggested to you that "original syn" is a term of art? No chemists I know have heard of this term.":

 "Original syn" is of course a pun, rather than a term of art, and probably better known to chemists who work on the origin of life than to chemists at large.

        Nicholas Wade   

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Chemjobber C&EN Index: 5/4/2009

Industrial (non-academic, non-governmental) positions:
Total number of ads: 1
- Postdocs: 0
- Permanent positions: 1
- Ratio of US/non-US: 0/1
Area: 14

Governmental positions (US, international):
Total number of ads: 1
- Postdocs: 0
- Permanent positions: 9+
- Ratio of US/non-US: 9+/0
Area: 155

Academic positions:
Total number of ads: 5
- Postdocs: 2
- Tenure-track faculty: 1
- Temporary faculty: 1
- Lecturer positions: 1
- Staff positions: 0
- Ratio of US/non-US positions: 4/1
- Area (square cm): 402

C'mon already: Good gracious, this is rough for the chemist. One med chem job in Shanghai -- nice! 

Kelly Scientific and ACS are lame!: No, I'm not counting the stupid ad from ACS and Kelly Scientific Resources. It leads to a stupid page where they say: Hey, nicetameetcha and check out our regular page! "Now, the world’s largest scientific society has partnered with the world’s leading authority on scientific careers to bring you more options." Snort. The freakin' world's largest scientific society hasn't even manage to extort any perks out of silly Kelly Scientific. Yeah, I'll get right on that weekend lab tech job. (no offense to all the hard-workin' weekend lab techs out there...)

Oslo, anyone?: The University of Oslo has a lovely half-page ad this week for a postdoc in nuclear chemistry. Interested, Mitch ?

Small college of the week: South Dakota State University (Brookings, SD, student population: 11,995 -- SA-LUTE!) is looking for an organic visiting professor. Sounds fun to me! Oh, wait, what's that you say? The average temperature in January is around 10°F? Um, well... No, I don't have any other offers -- South Dakota it is! 

Monday, May 11, 2009

If I were working with tert-butyllithium...

 I've pretty obsessively covered the UCLA/Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji case with two hats: as a blogger who sees this as a tragic consequence of some of the deficits in academic chemistry lab safety and as a working synthetic chemist who desperately wants to avoid bodily injury*. As time grows, I've thought about what I would do the next time I use tert-butyl lithium. Here are my thoughts on the precautions I would take:

No matter the scale of the t-butyllithium reaction: 
  • Full PPE: For me, this goes without saying. But let's make it really clear: Lab glasses (with side shields), lab coat (I even have access to a couple Nomex ones, but a regular lab coat will do.) Gloves at the right size -- not too small (they'll split at the wrong time) and not too large (overly bulky is uncomfortable and maybe clumsy.) The right kind of gloves (latex or nitrile.) No shorts or sandals. 
  • Avoid synthetic clothing: Neal Langerman has made it clear -- no synthetics, down to the underwear. Ladies, that means your upper undergarments, too. (This is a family blog and I'm a prude Baptist.)
  • Hood sash down as far as you can comfortably deal. 
  • A full and complete understanding of your nitrogen line system (with bubbler.) You are going to use a SureSeal bottle, right? Make sure you understand how much pressure you need to make sure the bottle has an inert atmosphere and that you're not overpressuring your system. I speculate this may be another hidden reason for the accident in the Sangji case. 
  • A clean hood. No bottles of flammable waste knocking around, no glassware to get in the way. 
  • A mind free of distraction: Quit worrying about how your boyfriend's ticked at all the time you're spending in the lab, quit being annoyed at your boss and his stupid questions at group meeting. Get your mind in the hood. 
A small-scale reaction (less than 10 mls of tBuLi):
  • Clean needles: Chances are, you're not using a disposable needle. Chances are, you're using metal needles. Make sure they're clean, unclogged, dry and working. 
  • Making an airlock?: This is an interesting idea that I've never tried: Plug both ends of a short length of glass tube with septa, flush with Ar, then use it as a needle "air lock" pushing the needle through both septa, then into the BuLi bottle. Take what you need then withdraw the needle through the first septa only - if this is pressed up against the septa of the bottle then the tip shouldn't catch fire.
A larger-scale reaction (more than 10 mls of tert-butyllithium):
  • Think ahead of time: Pre-plan. It might seem a little silly, but let's face it -- someone died doing what you're about to do. Think about scale of flasks, needles, syringes ahead of time. 
  • Have patience: Don't have the right equipment? Don't do the reaction yet! Don't feel safe? Don't do the reaction yet! 
  • Don't do this alone: First couple of times, have someone looking over your shoulder while you're doing this. Everytime you do it, make sure someone knows what you're up to, the very second you start. Which brings me to the next point...
  • Not in the middle of the night! Don't do this in the middle of the night, when there's nobody around and you're all alone. You'll be more likely to be tired and make a mistake. 
  • Learn your equipment: Make sure you're comfortable with the syringes you're using (and that you don't withdraw too quickly). Note: Milkshake (probably one of the more experienced bench chemists in the blogosphere) says that the 50 and 60 mL syringes stink. Go with multiple draws on a 20 mL syringe, he says. 
  • Leather gloves: Going to be working with a lot of tBuLi? Try leather gloves. From the accident reports, it sounds like the nitrile gloves may have caught fire. A pair of leather gardening or work gloves (make sure there's no synthetic fabric pieces) may make your life easier. 
  • Consider cannulation?: Cannulation always makes me nervous, as it's easy to overpressure your system and get jumping reflux condensers and the like. But IF you know your nitrogen line well, it may be a good idea to consider. 
  • A blast shield?: If you can't get your hood sash down (maybe you need access to the vacuum manifold in the back of the hood?), a safety or blast shield might be a good way to avoid the flames that may happen. 
A couple more resources: Lots of people have pointed to the Aldrich bulletin on handling air-sensitive reagents. There's lots of good advice (and some hairy stories) in these two In the Pipeline threads.  

I'm sure that others will have good advice on how to handle tBuLi. Please, I ask you, put your good advice in the comments to this thread. 

*After all, I have a wife and daughter to feed and hands I'd like to keep. 

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Chemjobber C&EN Index: 4/27/2009

Industrial (non-academic, non-governmental) positions:
Total number of ads: 1
- Postdocs: 0
- Permanent positions: 1
- Ratio of US/non-US: 1/0
Area: 13

Governmental positions (US, international):
Total number of ads: 1
- Postdocs: 0
- Permanent positions: 1
- Ratio of US/non-US: 1/0
Area: 32

Academic positions:
Total number of ads: 3
- Postdocs: 4
- Tenure-track faculty: 0
- Temporary faculty: 2
- Lecturer positions: 0
- Staff positions: 0
- Ratio of US/non-US positions: 6/
- Area (square cm): 75

This ain't gonna work: It's pretty depressing when the only industrial ad is an ad from a "nutraceutical" company looking for an analytical Ph.D. While it sounds like a good job (up until the point that Henry Waxman decides to regulate the industry), that's just not enough to sustain an economic recovery for chemists. 

Radiochemistry FTW: Bethany Halford's article on PET imaging from last September in C&EN mentioned that "what we're missing in this field are chemists". Well, folks, Brookhaven National Laboratory needs a Ph.D. in radiochemistry to work on radioisotope isolation and production. Sounds good to me! 

Small college of the week: Trinity University (student population: 2,718 -- SA-LUTE!) is looking for three postdocs : one in bioorganic chemistry and two in catalysis. If you want to spend a couple of years deep in the heart of Texas*, these positions may be for you! 
*Does San Antonio count as deep in the heart of Texas? Texans, write in and correct me!

Friday, May 8, 2009

"Expectation": more details emerge about the UCLA/Sheri Sangji case

Jyllian Kemsley's article in C&EN succinctly summarizes the state of play in the UCLA/Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji case: the Cal/OSHA fines, the relative dissatisfaction of Naveen Sangji with the Cal/OSHA report and Neal Langerman's continued call for a revolution in academic lab safety.

Included in the article are a few quotes from Prof. Harran:
Sangji's supervisor, professor Patrick Harran, says that he did address the PPE issues with his group. "My expectation is that everyone is to wear a lab coat and wear protective gear on their eyes," he says, adding that a lab coat is specifically ordered for everyone who joins the group. He refused to speculate as to why Sangji was not wearing her coat on the day of the accident. The two postdoctoral researchers who were in the lab with her were both wearing their lab coats, Harran says. [later in the article...] Regarding Sangji's training to handle tert-butyllithium, "She was supervised by senior personnel in my lab and shown how to do this particular procedure. She repeated it successfully," Harran says.

Ah, expectations: I do not know Professor Harran's personal vocabulary choices -- what does the term "expectation" mean to him? To me, it is a typical statement from a chemistry professor, much like he would expect a graduate student to keep a current notebook or to save their NMRs. It's quite possible that "expectation" is a stronger word to him -- we'll never know. 
A couple of questions: did Professor Harran ever express these expectations? Did he ever remind, hector or reprimand a graduate student or postdoc for lack of PPE? I frankly doubt it; most chemistry professors don't. They assume (and perhaps rightly so) that their graduate students will do what they think is necessary to keep themselves alive and standing at their hood... and the buck is thusly passed. 

Again with the labmates: Professor Harran notes that the postdocs were wearing their lab coats, but Ms. Sangji was not. Why didn't they say something? If I was a postdoc (and I have been) and coworker was starting up a larger scale tBuLi reaction in the hood next to mine without their lab coat, I might have expressed some concern (understatement?)
I beg of you, fellow chemists: be like Kyle (scroll down) and don't be afraid to call out your lab mates if they're being unsafe. Yeah, it might make you the lab jerk, but it'll keep someone safe -- trust me. 

What do you mean by success?: Professor Harran notes that Ms. Sangji completed the reaction before successfully. First of all, what does "successfully" mean? Does it mean that she performed the reaction safely or that the yield was equally high? I am curious to know the answer to that. 

It's all about scale: On what scale was her successful first reaction performed on? If my calculations are correct, the fatal reaction was performed on ~17 mmol scale (34 mmol of tBuLi, 2.0 equivs of tBuLi to one equiv. starting material (assuming Li-X exchange reaction)). This is not, repeat, not a trivial amount of starting material in a total synthesis-type lab, folks. Think of it this way -- if the molecular weight of her starting material was a low-to-average 250, that's 4.25 grams of starting material. It would be interesting to know the exact reaction Ms. Sangji was performing -- like many things about this case, this is just one of those details that will never see the light of day. 

Allow me to speculate and pontificate a little here: Scaleup is one of the trickiest parts of reaction chemistry. I speculate that both Professor Harran and Ms. Sangji made a crucial mistake: that if a reaction goes fine on 1 gram, it'll go fine on 4 grams (or 10 grams or 20 grams.) I've heard that you have to readjust your reaction conditions every 4X increase in scale -- I suspect that this was one of the hidden issues that was unaddressed before Ms. Sangji ran this reaction. If (and only IF) this was a scale-up of a previously successful smaller reaction, then I suspect that this may have been her first time using one of the monster 60 mL syringes. 

"How about never? Is never good for you?"

As people can see, the April poll question drew pretty pessimistic responses. The results below:

Poll question: When will the job market for chemists recover? 
Summer 2009: 7% (the optimist!)
Fall/Winter 2009: 23%
Spring/Summer 2010: 0%
Fall/Winter 2010: 0%
2011: 7%
Never: 61%

Holy jiminy -- never? Gee, I'd like to think that's wrong. For what it's worth, I predict that chemical employment will recover past its peak in late 2010. But that's just me. New poll coming -- and yes, I will get back to covering the job market. But while all of the chemical safety iron is hot, I'm darn well going to strike.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Safety information on handling of large quantities of organolithium compounds.

In all of this conversation about the UCLA/Sheri Sangji situation, I felt it important to get some useful information about handling large quantities of organolithium (such as n-butyllithium or tert-butyllithium) compounds out there.
From the review "Organolithium Compounds - Industrial Applications and Handling" by Franz Totter and Peter Rittmeyer, a chapter in "Organometallics in Synthesis: A Manual", M. Schlosser, John Wiley & Sons, New York.

Toxicology: The toxicological properties of organolithium compounds refer to the properties of the hydrolysis products. The caustic effect of lithium hydrolysis leads to severe irritation of the skin, mucous membranes, eyes and respiratory tract. The lithium ions is considerably more toxic than the sodium ion. On the other hand, certain forms of manic-depressive diseases are treated with dosages of lithium carbonate. [Interesting addition -- CJ.] 

Personal Safety: All personnel working with organolithium compounds on an industrial scale should be protected appropriate measures, i.e. face and eye protection, leather gloves, protective clothing against fire, protective shoes.
The staff in production plants wear leather suits, which are recommended because of their high thermal insulation capacity. The clothing is made from impregnated leather as it soaks up much less liquid than unprotected leather. The leather suits must not have any pockets outside in order to avoid any trapping of liquids. As leather shrinks somewhat in a fire or it may be necessary to remove this clothing quickly, it has rows of snap fasteners along the arms and legs. Another suitable material for protective clothing is Nomex, an aluminum coated fibre. Compared with leather it has a lower thermal insulation capacity and it is more sensitive to alkali. 
The face and eyes are protected by goggles and face shields fixed on the worker's helmet. Gloves should be made of leather. To prevent electrostatic discharges, the personnel should wear protective shoes with conductive soles.

Fire Fighting: When working with organolithium compounds one should always keep in mind that there is the possibility of spontaneous ignition. Therefore, all necessary equipment for fire fighting should be kept available, e.g. portable extinguishers for fighting small fires and mobile, larger extinguishers for fighting larger fires. In addition, boxes with ground limestone powder and shovels should be kept on hand for covering spilled solutions and extinguishing small fires. Fires must be NOT fought with water, carbon dioxide or halogenated hydrocarbons (halons) as they react vigorously with organolithium compounds.
Suitable media for fire fighting are ground limestone powder (for small fires), sodium hydrogen carbonate-based extinguishing agents (not for concentrated organolithium compounds and sodium chloride-based extinguishing agents (e.g. Totalit M.) 
For personnel, protection blankets and self-rescue showers should be readily accessible. Self-rescue showers are devices that release a shower of extinguishing powder when activated by stepping on a floor plate. It makes sense to install water showers or tempered water basins outside a production plant to extinguish the fire of a person's clothing or to wash off alkalinity from the skin." 

UPDATED: Removed boneheaded error in key portion. Whoops!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Patrick Harran, peeing in the jury pool?

Professor Harran has released a statement about the death of Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji to the LA Times. I think it's worth reading the whole thing here. The passage below, however, deserved some amount of comment:
Sheri was an experienced chemist and published researcher who exuded confidence and had performed this experiment before in my lab. Sheri had previous experience handling pyrophorics, chemicals that burn upon exposure to air, even before she arrived at UCLA. Her most recent position prior to joining the group involved "scale-up process safety." However, it seems evident, based on mistakes investigators tell us were made that day, I underestimated her understanding of the care necessary when working with such materials.
I cannot read this portion of the statement as anything other than 1) casting doubt on the public assertions and impressions that Ms. Sangji was inexperienced and 2) by doing so, attempting to affect the pool of potential jurors for any ensuing legal actions.

I say this because I am surprised at the assertion that Ms. Sangji was previously working in "scale-up process safety"; if so, this casts a different light on her level of experience.

I also believe that it is aimed towards affecting potential jury members for this reason: this is Harran's first (to my knowledge) public statement. Why not issue a three sentence statement? "I am sorry for Ms. Sangji's death. As it happened in my lab, it was my responsibility -- there is no excuse. I will do my utmost to avoid the situation in the future." His actual statement, in my opinion, will do nothing to make Professor Harran look better and will only intensify the criticism aimed at him from different quarters.

UPDATED: Emphasized that Ms. Sangji was previously working in process.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

You did a dumb, dumb thing.

UPDATE: I have apologized for some of the language in this post. It was wrong.

Kim Christensen of the Los Angeles Times is continuing to cover the Sheri Sangji story; for that, he is to be commended. His latest report is drawn from e-mails that he recovered through the California Public Records Act; both Patrick Harran's and other UCLA officials' e-mails are included.
However, Mr. Christensen has either been poorly edited or is a bit out of his element towards the end of his article, where he exposes the casual indifference to safety from a typical grad student:
A week before Sangji's injury, a graduate student in another lab suffered cuts and burns to his face and neck when an experiment went awry, another accident report stated.

The unidentified student, who was treated at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center's emergency room, told a university investigator that the explosion caused "glass, hot oil and chemical to fly toward my face, torso" and the surrounding area.

"When the incident occurred, I had my prescription glasses on, but not lab coat, gloves or safety glasses/goggles," he said, adding that he had been trained in safety measures.

"I had safety training from my previous university," he said, "but not from UCLA after I transferred here in 2007."
As I've mentioned before, Mr. Christensen is obviously not one "skilled in the art" of chemistry. But really, are we to believe that the reason that homeboy was standing in front of his hood without his lab coat, gloves or safety goggles was that he had forgotten his safety training and needed to be reminded by UCLA? Mr. Christensen, this (of all things) does not need a reminder from the employing institution.

Safety glasses or goggles (not prescription glasses, all you idiot foreign postdocs with your Coke-bottle glasses sans side shields) are required of sophomore organic chemistry students, much less graduate students.**

Consider this post a note to all observers, in chemistry and out: wear your safety glasses!

Look, no less an eminence than Nobel Prize winner K. Barry Sharpless has written a plea (almost 17 years ago!) that "there's simply never an adequate excuse for not wearing safety glasses in the laboratory at all times." And it took him losing a freakin' eye to learn that lesson.


*In the off chance that the unknown UCLA graduate student actually reads this blog post, a small note: We've all done unwise things in the lab. Sounds like you recovered -- best of luck with your future career in chemistry and I'm sure that you'll be a safer chemist and a good influence to the folks around you.

**UPDATE (3/5/13): I have apologized for some of the language in this post. It was wrong.