Newsletter - August 1997

Abandoned Lab Chemicals
by: Ann Piechota

Faculty, post-docs and students seem to leave the University on a daily basis. All too often, unfortunately, our departing co-workers leave behind partially completed experiments, stock solutions, petri dishes and even body parts. Who gets stuck with clean-up? It falls on the shoulders of personnel remaining in the labs, building maintenance, building deputies, facility managers, facility services personnel and REM. And, because many of these materials are not clearly labeled, disposal can be very time consuming, costly and potentially risky.

What can be done to make things easier? If you work with chemicals, be sure all materials are labeled at all times. If you are planning to leave, sort through the materials you use. Those which will not be used by others in the lab should be sent to REM using the pickup request form in the "Hazardous Materials Guidelines." If you need assistance, call REM. Likewise, if you know of someone who is leaving, let us know. It is easier and cheaper to address hazardous materials before the generator leaves than after. Avoid the headaches. If you have any questions, call 63072.

Chemical Hygiene Plan Manuals
by: Dr. Linda Swihart

ATTENTION Academic Departments, especially Heads and Safety Chairs! The Chemical Hygiene Plan Manual is to be provided, at the time of initial assignment, to every employee who will work in an area where "laboratory use" of chemicals is undertaken and/or lab chemicals are stored. The employee is to read the manual, and sign and submit the Awareness Certification page to his/her supervisor or the department Safety Chair. Here are some common questions:

1) What about people who work in this sort of area, but don't work with chemicals, e.g., computer specialists, secretaries, technicians who wash glassware and run the autoclave...?

Give them the CHP Manual, ask them to read it and submit the signed awareness certification, and make sure they know that any questions or concerns they have about chemical safety are important to you and to REM.

2) How are we supposed to make sure every such person hired by the department gets the CHP Manual, and that they turn in the awareness certification page?

Many departments have chosen someone in their business office to assume the responsibility of supplying the manual to new staff members at the same time they give them the other new hire paperwork. That person is also responsible for making sure the new staff members return their signed awareness certification page and that those pages are either passed along to the department Safety Chair or filed properly.

3) Is there an on-line version of the CHP Manual?

Yes, there is, and it can be found at

Contact the Industrial Hygiene secretary at 47968 or Linda Swihart at 43244 or email her at if you need manuals or have questions about the Chemical Hygiene Plan.

Do not wear your lab gloves outside the lab.

Eyewash/Safety Shower Crew Begins Annual Inspections

Where is that eyewash/safety shower when you need it? Will it function correctly? REM's inspection of these important safety items is underway at the University. Summer employees Peter DeCarlo (Notre Dame bound) and Gregory "Jake" Puetz (Purdue this fall) have started the task of inspecting, flushing and minor repairing, as needed, each of the more than 1,300 emergency units located in fifty-five buildings throughout campus.

Peter and Jake inspect, flush and adjust the eyewash flow patterns. They inspect and flush safety showers into a cart-mounted 55 gallon barrel. A sump pump is used in the barrel between tests.

Major problems requiring a plumber's attention are referred to the building deputy who is asked to obtain an 18-A Request for Services account number from the department where the defective unit is located. The 18-A is then submitted by the building deputy to Zone Maintenance to initiate the needed repair(s). Eyewash owners are encouraged to flush their units weekly.

On-Line Lab Safety Training Sign-up!

Staff: Go to and sign up for "basic training" in laboratory chemical safety.

Departments: Send people to us! Two 2 hour sessions are offered per month:

  • The second Tuesday of the month from 1:30-3:30 p.m.
  • The second Friday of the month from 9:00-11:00 a.m.

Special arrangements can always be made if these times are not suitable.

Each session is designed to familiarize lab staff at all levels with basic laboratory chemical safety issues and the expectations of the University and the regulatory agencies. To the extent possible, each session will be tailored to the groups signed up for it. Please sign up at least two weeks in advance.

See the web page or call the REM Industrial Hygiene secretary at 47968 to learn more about the typical topics covered, or with any questions.

Mercury Poisoning
by: Neal Stephenson

Poison BottleIn August of 1996, Dr. Karen Wetterhahn of Dartmouth College was working in her research space in Burke Laboratory. She was preparing a standard for nuclear magnetic resonance. She spilled a small amount of a compound called dimethyl mercury, which penetrated the latex gloves she was wearing, and was almost immediately absorbed by her skin. Karen Wetterhahn, though she did not know it, had already been poisoned.

For the next several months, she went about her usual activities. Then, in January of 1997, Wetterhahn began to experience problems with her balance, hearing and eyesight. Her fingers became numb and she began to have difficulty speaking. She was diagnosed with mercury poisoning on January 28. Tests showed a blood mercury concentration of 4000 micrograms per liter, whereas the toxic threshold is considered to be 50 micrograms per liter. Yet, except for two episodes of nausea and vomiting spaced weeks apart, which began about three months after her accident, there was nothing until January to indicate the presence of a serious health problem (and no one really knows if these episodes were a result of her exposure).

This situation illustrates the truly insidious nature of mercury poisoning. One can receive a severely toxic or even fatal dose of mercury without an inkling of what is happening. By the time symptoms appear, irreversible brain damage has occurred. (Chelation succeeded in significantly increasing the rate of elimination of mercury from Wetterhahn's body, but there was no clinical improvement.) Three weeks after her diagnosis, she slipped into a coma from which she never recovered. She died on Sunday, June 8.

This was a tragedy which need never have happened. Though, at the time, the toxicological, chemical and physical properties of the material had not been thoroughly investigated (and still have not), the National Research Council publication, "Prudent Practices in the Laboratory," (1955) counseled, "for highly toxic substances, a highly- resistant laminate glove should be worn under a pair of long-cuffed unsupported neoprene, nitrile, or similar heavy-duty gloves." Latex or PVC gloves have an important role in many laboratory activities, but are not suitable for significant, direct contact with aggressive or highly toxic chemicals.

Permeation tests done by an independent testing laboratory (after Wetterhahn's accident) found that dimethyl mercury penetrates disposable latex gloves in fifteen seconds or less. Medical surveillance of mercury concentrations in blood or urine should be strongly considered for repeated or extended use of alkyl mercury compounds. In any case, the potential hazards associated with dimethyl mercury and related mercury compounds should not be underestimated.

Though Wetterhahn's exposure was by absorption, dimethyl mercury is highly volatile and presents a very real hazard by inhalation. Shortly after the first synthesis of the compound in the nineteenth century, a spill resulted in two deaths, apparently by inhalation. Other deaths from dimethyl mercury poisoning have been reported: the Canadian Journal of Public Health, in 1943, discussed a case in which two secretaries had been working about fifteen feet from a leaking container and died as a result. A Czechoslovakian chemist who synthesized 6000 grams of the compound in a three-month period displayed steadily worsening symptoms and died within a month.

"It's true, "the cost of safety is eternal vigilance."