Do You Know Your Spills?
by Keith Bottum

In September, EH&S responded to a formalin spill where approximately 500 ml. was spilled when a 5-gallon carboy was mishandled. Effective response and communication among all parties allowed for efficient clean up without personal exposure or environmental harm. The magnitude and impact of this particular spill were relatively unexceptional, but it provides an opportunity to review steps for ensuring that should a spill occur, it too will be nothing more than unexceptional.

Personnel quickly made the determination, based on the supplies, personnel and expertise on hand, that the spill was unmanageable and knew to contact EH&S for assistance. A+ on that. However, if the lab had the required formalin-specific spill neutralizer, normal operations could have resumed much sooner.

Personnel must know what to do before a spill happens, and labs must have proper supplies on hand. Personnel must be able to quickly determine if the spill is manageable or if help from EH&S is needed, and must know what spill kits are available and when and how to use them. For example, labs using acids and bases must have appropriate neutralizers; labs using formalin must have a formalin-specific kit. This information is covered in EH&S training and is required for all laboratory personnel. Be prepared - See the EH&S website to determine your training requirements.

Who are you going to call? by Rebecca Lonergan

Most people are aware of the inherent chemical hazards in laboratories and are prepared in the event of a spill; however, chemical spills can happen anywhere, at any time! One recent incident illustrates the need to be aware of chemical hazards even outside of the lab, and the importance of contacting EH&S, or Public Safety if after hours, whenever you suspect a spill may have occurred.
Two students moving furniture from a storage space in a non-laboratory building discovered a silvery substance on the floor. Not expecting to encounter chemicals in the area, they swept the floor and collected the dust and silvery material in a trash bag and bottle which they then set aside and left unlabeled. Several days later while EH&S was visiting the area on an unrelated matter, the student mentioned the collected material. Upon investigation EH&S discovered elemental mercury contamination throughout the room stemming from old, improperly stored mercury containing equipment.
Because the material was not reported immediately to EH&S or Public Safety, the loose mercury made its way from the equipment and spread throughout the room resulting in a greater area of contamination. The reporting delay may have caused the lag time in response, which may have contributed to a small spill cleanup becoming an expensive, multi-day spill response.

  • If you see something in a laboratory or non-laboratory space that you suspect may be associated with a hazardous incident, contact EH&S or Public Safety immediately.
  • Generally if spills are reported immediately, they can be cleaned up quickly and thoroughly to minimize exposure and disruption to operations.
  • If you are unsure of a situation or whether a spill is beyond your capabilities, contact EH&S.
  • Remember to collect and label all debris and equipment used during spill responses for disposal as hazardous chemical waste.
  • Need a refresher on handling chemical spills or working with chemicals? See our website at

Critical equipment

Check your critical equipment in shared spaces to ensure that an Emergency Contact sticker is posted. If you need a stickers, you may obtain them from the Morningside or Medical Center EH&S office, any of the Public Safety desks at each of the CUMC research building entrances. Or, see EH&S' website to print a sticker for your lab.


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