Environmental Rooms: Not Always So Friendly
by Greg Kwolek, Senior Research Safety Specialist
Environmental rooms, known more colloquially as cold and warm rooms, are designed for storing or handling laboratory materials in a constant-temperature environment. On the surface the majority of these spaces are essentially walk-in refrigerators, but have you ever considered how environmental rooms maintain their constant temperature? Or wondered about the potential hazards that could be found inside?
Environmental rooms regulate their temperature by heating or cooling recirculated air. Less energy is used to condition recirculated air than to heat and cool the fresh air that is supplied to traditional laboratory spaces. While recirculating the air has energy savings benefits, it also means that fresh air is only introduced into the room during brief moments when the door is opened and closed. If a hazardous material were to be released into the room, which has happened) the atmosphere could quickly become explosive, toxic, or deficient of oxygen.
To help ensure environmental rooms at Columbia University are safe spaces to work, EH&S set out to visit each space and conduct a survey for potential hazards during Spring, 2015. After surveying 116 environmental rooms, EH&S found that 15% contained food and beverages, another 11% contained potential asphyxiation hazards, 83% contained mold substrates, and finally, 81% of all environmental rooms contained potential chemical hazards. This does not mean that walking into an environmental room is inherently hazardous, but the potential is certainly there. Where possible, these hazards were addressed with laboratory staff at the time of the survey to remove the potential hazard or correct the unsafe condition. After the surveys, EH&S setup outreach tables at the Morningside and Medical Center campuses to share these findings with the research community and to raise awareness about environmental room safety, an approach that EH&S will be continuing throughout the year for a variety of research safety topics.
Eating and drinking are strictly prohibited in all laboratory spaces, and cold rooms are not suitable for the storage of food and drink. To ensure that environmental rooms are safe for you and your colleagues, if you need to store or use a flammable or toxic chemical below room temperature, use an approved chemical storage refrigerator for storage, or an ice bath in the main laboratory to cool it down prior to use. Preventing mold growth in an environmental room is easy too, and starts with eliminating materials containing cellulose, such as cardboard or paper, from being stored in the room. Already see signs of mold growth? For minor contamination, wipe down surfaces such as walls, floors, or benches with a dilute bleach solution (1 part bleach to 10 parts water). For assistance with remediating more extensive contamination, contact the Facilities department at your respective campus to arrange for vendor services. To avoid creating an asphyxiation hazard, never store or use dry ice, cryogenics, or compressed gases in an environmental room. An inadvertent release of these materials can quickly result in an oxygen deficient atmosphere, and result in someone becoming incapacitated. For more detailed information about keeping your environmental room safe, please visit the EH&S website at http://ehs.columbia.edu and search for “environmental room safety”. If your research needs require you to use these materials in an environmental room, please contact EH&S for further assistance.
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