Solvent Fire Destroys Laboratories

On what seemed like an uneventful evening, graduate students in an upstate chemistry lab were engaged in routine activities. Some were working at the bench while others were unloading a shipment of hexane into a solvent cabinet. A student placed the last of 12, one-gallon bottles into the cabinet, when the shelf broke.  The bottle shattered, cut the student’s arm and contaminated their clothing.  Co-workers quickly attended to the injured student, but were overwhelmed by the strong solvent vapors. A nearby open flame ignited the vapors, causing a violent explosion.  Twenty fire trucks were deployed to fight the fire that destroyed the lab and those surrounding it (photo below; Chemical & Engineering News, May 2005.).Fortunately no one was hurt 

Lessons Learned:
While this incident occurred at another college, because the presence of flammable and hazardous materials defines most laboratory spaces, never consider any lab activities ‘routine’. To safely store hazardous materials:

  • Properly segregate and place in secondary containment for storage in cabinets.
  • Be aware of the maximum weight a shelf can hold; and remember some liquids are heavier than water, for example, sulfuric acid (depending on the  concentration) may be as much as 84% more dense.
  • When possible, store higher hazard materials below eye/face level.
  • Always wear personal protective equipment (PPE) including gloves, a lab coat and safety glasses when handling hazardous materials.  These protective barriers may buy a few extra seconds preventing skin contact and serious injury.
  • Follow the applicable rules regarding chemical storage. 

In the event of any spill:
Turn off any ignition sources to prevent a fire or explosion. In case of a manageable spill, know the location of spill kits and initiate clean up only if you are knowledgeable to do so and the clean up will not put you at risk. When in doubt, get out
For a large or unmanageable spill, evacuate the laboratory and contact EH&S immediately. The NYC Fire Department (FDNY) recently enacted more stringent rules for chemical storage; see our web site for information about this and our safety training sessions.

Be Proactive-Be Prepared: Our web site, describes response scenarios for laboratory spills-take a quick look now.  This might be a page you want to print out and keep handy.  Call EH&S (854-8749 @Morningside or 305-6780 @ CUMC) with questions about chemical segregation and storage. 

The NYC Fire Department requires  at least one holder of a Certificate of Fitness for supervision of laboratories (C-14) to be present anytime a laboratory is in operation, including nights and weekends.  EH&S provides training and testing at both the Morningside and Medical Center campuses. 

Select Agent Toxins

You may be aware of the Select Agents Rule as a component of the Department of Homeland Security’s program to oversee the use of high-risk microorganisms in research and other settings.  Fewer people know that the same legislation also covers one dozen toxins, some of which are fairly common in academic settings, including tetrodotoxin and conotoxins.  But unlike microorganisms, the requirements for the toxins are only applicable for possession above specified quantity  limits.  For a list of toxins and their respective quantity limits see
Possession above these levels require a background check and an extensive registration process.
If your laboratory uses any of the Select Agent Toxins, be sure that quantities are kept well below the specified limits. Contact EH&S with any questions.

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