Chemistry: a risky business?

About four months into my PhD, the world of academic chemistry was hit by a shocking story. Sheri Sangji, a 23 year old research assistant at the Chemistry department at UCLA had been working alone, late at night. She was adding a syringe full of a pyrophoric substance [1] to a reaction in a round-bottomed flask. For some reason the syringe became pressurised, came apart and squirted the liquid all over her body which then spontaneously ignited. She received third degree burns over 43% of her body and later sadly died [2].

This has sparked a wave of hysteria about safety amongst chemists, with people beginning to question how this could have happened and what more we can do to prevent these things [3]. My own department already took things very seriously; there are random spot checks on safety documentation and several of the chinese students who seem to work 24 hour days have been evicted from the building after having been found working at 2am, with no one around to call for help if something explodes.

Despite this, in 2009, we did have our own explosion. The blast took place in the lab directly above my own – I felt the entire building shake. A student had been drying just a few tens of millilitres of hydrogen peroxide, which got too hot and exploded. Every window in the 20 metre long laboratory – made of reinforced safety glass – was blown out and the student was hospitalised for several weeks.

The fact is that some chemicals can do dangerous things if you don’t handle them carefully. To try and avoid accidents, it’s a legal requirement that people do ‘risk assessments’  before they do any new reaction or procedure in chemistry labs. This is common practice in semi-dangerous workplaces. The idea is that once we understand the things that could go wrong, and how they might happen, we can take steps to minimise the risk that these problems will actually occur to an acceptable level. But risk is quite a complicated thing: what is an acceptable level of risk?

For example, after the ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with Pollonium 210, tiny traces of the radioactive substance were found in certain locations around London. There was presumably a small risk that people visiting those locations might get poisoned too. Was it a big enough risk that something should be done about it though? Was the level of risk acceptable?

It was sort of obvious that the risk was pretty low, but really the only meaningful way of deciding on risk is to give it some sort of number or fraction.  It’ s a bit of an aside, but since  risk is such a complicated idea,  Cambridge University appointed a Professor of public understanding of risk a few years ago to help people better understand the idea of risk. I just mention it because he’s made an amusing video clip which  I recently came across:

But I’ll save expounding on the theme of risk any further for another time because there’s something less complicated and more important to say.  There is a reason why people are starting to take more risks in chemistry; an underlying cause for all this. It’s the recession. We can blame it for  just about everything if we try hard enough!

But seriously, there really is a big trend in science at the moment that you have to be good. What I mean by that is that you have to work extremely long hours, be very clever, read a large amount of research papers (and talk about them loudly at coffee break so that everyone knows you have) and most importantly you must get results. It’s not enough to just work fairly hard and have good ideas if those ideas aren’t scientifically fashionable for example. So you must work as hard as possible until you get something worth talking about in the current trends.

Without getting these type of results from your science it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get a decent job or  ever move up the career ladder, because there are so few of these opportunities, only the absolute best will get them. Scientists are no longer rich gentlemen experimenters, genuinely fascinated by the natural world like in the 1900’s. Rather , simply in order to survive they must be ambitious, energetic and ruthless. Their whole future life is what’s at stake here, and the desperation that takes over fosters a culture where young scientists are tempted to take shortcuts with safety.

It’s also spelled out quite clearly I think in the scandal a few months back surrounding the University of East Anglia  climate change emails. The scientists in question had data which seemed to go against the current climate change paradigm, and I think it was at least partly the desire not to get a bad reputation amongst peers who might be future employers – more than anything else – which led to the data not being made public.

So chemistry and other sciences can be risky, and this just-rush-it-through- to-get-results culture has to stop. There’s three options. First, the government could intervene and start funding science properly, create more jobs and allow researchers to feel secure in their positions. Of course, this won’t happen!

The second option is for scientists to get serious about their profession, experiment carefully and safely – regardless of  the conclusions this seems to be leading to – and be willing to accept lower wages. The last option is for things to continue as they are, but that’s not really an option.


1. Pyrophoric means the substance will catch fire if exposed to air. This makes life quite difficult for chemists who want to use these compounds. Often they have to use glove boxes with inert atmospheres to store the compounds and work very carefully when they’re taken outside of that space.

Gloveboxes are used to store pyrophoric chemicals.

2. See a report here.

3. See a recent comment article in Nature here.

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One Response to Chemistry: a risky business?

  1. Pingback: Open Laboratory 2010 – submissions now closed – see all the entries | A Blog Around The Clock

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