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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 6, 2004

We Have Ways of Keeping You Safe

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Posted by Derek

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.

Comments (11) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. David on October 6, 2004 10:03 PM writes...

My personal favorites are the chemicals that state "toxic (US), highly toxic (Europe)" as if something terrible happens when you jump the big pond.

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2. Rob Sperry on October 7, 2004 3:47 AM writes...

We once had a very important experiment delayed because a container of helium with 1% argon got shiped without an msds form. The two PHD chemist who went to recieve it got told by the recieving cleric that it could not enter the building without the form. They were unable to reasure him that it would not react with anything.

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3. Mike on October 7, 2004 8:55 AM writes...

A container of sea sand in my lab actually contains the words "death may result."

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4. Drew on October 7, 2004 10:47 AM writes...

I recently learned that MSDS sheets are intentionally vague and unhelpful. Apparently, the Chemical Manufacturers Assoc. refused to implement them unless they could minimize their liabilities. The simplest way of doing this? Make everything toxic, with maximum warnings, so no matter what the outcome, the CMA could always say "see! we told you so!"

I find it staggering that the labeling on say, HMPA is not really different from MeOH. Strange games indeed....

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5. Katherine on October 7, 2004 2:04 PM writes...

It's exactly like the food safety people who warn of dire consequences if you leave meat on the countertop to thaw. If instead they said "There is a 2% chance of getting food poisoning from improperly refrigerated meat" they might get taken seriously.

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6. Dawn B. on October 7, 2004 2:09 PM writes...

Gotta love the warnings that go around for DHMO*. Scariest thing ever, I tell you. Clearly modeled after MSDS.

* DHMO = DiHydrogenMonOxide aka H20 aka Water.

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7. Dawn B. on October 7, 2004 2:10 PM writes...

Sorry for the double post.

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8. Daniel Newby on October 7, 2004 3:12 PM writes...

Many things actually are dangerous, under just the right circumstances. I once put too much sodium bicarbonate in my shoes and then got sweaty. Yeah, they were much fresher smelling, but much of the skin peeled off my feet a few days later. Practical warnings would be much better, but with the tort lawyers lurking in the shadows you have to cover everything.

What is hazardous polymerization, anyway? Oh my God, everybody run for it! The ethylene is turning into...PLASTIC!!! AUUGHHHHHH!!!!!!!!

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9. charles p. on October 7, 2004 4:25 PM writes...

I always found it amusing that the MSDS for water tells you that if you come in contact with it, you should flush the affected area with plenty of water.

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10. Steven Den Beste on October 7, 2004 8:11 PM writes...

The Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division. Read it and weep (or giggle).

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11. Zach on October 11, 2004 6:09 PM writes...

Some people call it the universal solution.
I call it the universal problem.

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