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October 6, 2004
We Have Ways of Keeping You Safe
I was telling some people the other day about a summer undergraduate student that I once had assisting me. (As with many of those, perhaps the verb should have quotation marks around it.) At any rate, this fellow read all the labels on all the reagents, looking for hazards. He believed every word. He read the MSDS forms and everything it said in the catalog and the handbooks. In other words, he did just what many lab safety campaigns would like for everyone to do all the time. And, naturally enough, he ended up terrified of working with any actual chemicals.
Who could blame him? Look at his choice of reading material: the sea sand container in my lab says that I should wear suitable protective clothing before I dare to open it. I note that the protective garment in which I've faced most of the sea sand in my life is a bathing suit. The label on the sodium bicarbonate - y'know, baking soda - says to wash thoroughly after any skin contact and call a physician if I've been exposed. How about something a little more hazardous? The sodium chloride bottle says, among other things, "Do not ingest", and "Target Organs: Skin, Eyes, Stomach". It cautions me to keep the container in a cool, well-ventilated place and to call that physician again if I'm rash enough to come into contact with the stuff.
So you can imagine what the bottles of dichloromethane and ether say, much less the labels on things like cyanide, where you might at last want to start paying some real attention. But by now, who does? In the same way that the Iranian theocracy has raised the most irreligious generation that the mullahs have ever seen, the Safety Mullahs have bred indifference to all but the most strident warning labels. For an example of debased speech, look no further.
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