After writing about the dilution of those “dangerous” kids’ chemistry sets, I find that Nature has just published a news article wondering how dangerous chemistry actually is.
Something that felt like an earthquake hit the French town of Mulhouse on 24 March. The explosion at the National Institution of Higher Learning in Chemistry (ENSCMu) killed Dominique Burget, a 41-year-old photochemist. It also sent ripples of concern around the world.
Although official investigations are expected to last until the end of the year, it appears that residues of the flammable gas ethene in a pressure vessel were responsible. Burget was working in the lab above the explosion and had nothing to do with the experiment, which also severely injured a 19 year-old student in the room next door. “She is now out of danger and comes back to the school next week,” Serge Neunlist, director of ENSCMu, said on 23 May. The explosion caused roughly €10 million (US$13 million) of damage and destroyed about 4,000 m2 of the building, which will take at least three years to rebuild.
It has other little anecdotes scattered throughout.
“The thing that radicalized me on safety was when I got a job with a small company in Philadelphia,” he [Professor Edward Arnett of Duke] recalls. “I took over my job a couple of days after they buried my predecessor, who died of hydrofluoric acid poisoning. It was my job to make sure nothing like that ever happened again.”
Ultimately, though, it doesn’t come to any strong conclusions. Chem labs may be risky, but the statistics are difficult to come by, and the most common sort of injury is getting cut on broken glassware. They also mention that there are greater numbers of serious injuries from college sports than from college chemistry classes.
“I don’t feel that there is a significant difference between chemistry labs and other labs,” agrees Gibbs, pointing out that biology, for example, carries its own set of risks, namely infection.
Others agree that the risk of infection is often underplayed compared with that of chemical accidents. “People’s risk perception is skewed by the drama of an explosion,” says Firn. Gillett adds that the most serious lab accidents at Imperial have involved accidental infections with hepatitis A and vaccinia virus. “Pathogens are where I would be more anxious about what’s going on,” he says.
Hey, now! None of that! We’re criticizing chemists, and they’re trying to change the subject and put us biologists on the spot!
Peplow M, Marris E (2006) How dangerous is chemistry? Nature 441:560-561.