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

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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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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June 15, 2005

How Safe Is This Stuff?

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Posted by Derek

Prompted by a comment to the benzene distillation post, I've been searching for some accident rate or life expectancy data for organic chemists. It's not easy to find. I'm pretty sure that the American Chemical Society collects this sort of thing (and since they have a group rate for term life insurance, it would seem that someone has looked into the matter), but the numbers don't seem to be public. Anyone know of a source?

My belief is that organic chemistry isn't a particularly hazardous profession. The risks go down as you get out of graduate school, where there's much less supervision, in facilities that are often not the most up to date, with many more dangerous people running around. We've weeded out most of the really deadly folks here in industry, and I'm sure that there's a steep power-law distribution that has them accounting for way more than their share of trouble.

Almost every serious accident I've ever been around has been someone's fault - that is, as opposed to JOOTT (Just One Of Those Things.) Nope, the bad ones have all been due to someone screwing up, generally in a way that made independent observers groan and shake their heads afterwards. Distilling things that shouldn't be distilled, making things on a scale that they shouldn't be made (with the available equipment), grievously mishandling fiery and corrosive reagents, setting up closed systems and cranking the heat up on them - that's the sort of thing I mean.

And as far as I can tell, the best way to improve your safety record is to get rid of the people that seem capable of doing this stuff. The worst ones aren't particularly trainable, anyway; you're much better off without them. "Against stupidty, the Gods themselves contend in vain", and no safety program is going to stand a chance, either.

Comments (13) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. Bill Tozier on June 15, 2005 10:31 PM writes...

When I was thinking about U-Ga for a Ph.D. [iteration #1] back in the late 80s, I met a fellow in that department that everybody else (offline) called "Dr. Death." He was puffing away on his cigarette right there in the lab, pipetting P-32-labeled DNA with no goggles, no gloves, open lab coat, while we chatted. I do think he asked if I minded whether he smoked....

I just checked. He's fine.

It was impressive, I have to admit, how he held the cigarette while pipetting.

There's also the apocryphal story of the old professor who would fog x-ray film when he walked by....

The human body is a remarkable thing.

That said, I was taught that a lot of the folks who started using polyacrylamide gels for protein purification back in the early days developed severe parkinsonism from the monomer solutions.

Permalink to Comment

2. qetzal on June 15, 2005 11:37 PM writes...


I used to hear similar stories about acrylamide, but as far as I can tell, they were apocryphal. PubMed & ToxNet searches don't seem to reveal any actual cases.

The story I always heard was about the angry post-doc who kept doping his boss's coffee creamer with acrylamide. Wouldn't be surprised if that was also apocryphal.

OTOH, there was a true colleague-poisoning case at a biotech co. next to where I worked in the late '80s. Some researcher was jealous of another (apparently for some reason that didn't really make sense). He ordered some very potent toxin from Sigma or somewhere. I can't remember what it was, and I can't find any ref on Google. I want to say it was something like ricin or aflatoxin, but that's probably not right.

Whatever it was, he put it in his co-worker's nasal spray. When the co-worker used it next, he immediately felt a strong burning. For whatever reason, suspicion quickly fell on the first guy. They did tests to prove the poison was in the spray, showed that the jealous guy was the one who had ordered it, even though there was no reason for him to be using it in his research, etc.

The parking lot was all blocked off & full of police that day when I came to work. Don't know what ever happened to the accused, though.

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3. Lou on June 16, 2005 7:06 AM writes...

Going off on a tangent, I've heard a few of colleague-poisoning cases. One was even featured in Science a few years back (vol 278, p1704).

Another I heard about from a German friend, was acrylamide poisoning in Germany, and the victim was left with paralysis.

In Japan a few years back, there was a case involving the spiking of a teapot. If I remember correctly, the motive for the crime was jealousy about a colleague getting a promotion or something like that.

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4. engicon on June 16, 2005 11:26 AM writes...

I don't have any actual stats to contribute, but when I was an undergrad (pretty recent), the word was that chemical engineers made the most money but had the shortest life expectancy. I figured that this wasn't so much from the "I blew myself and three lab assistants up" type of accident so much as from a lifetime of handling nasty stuff. It may be that the life expectancy thing isn't quite as true as it was when tasting your results was an accepted analysis procedure...

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5. SP on June 16, 2005 12:35 PM writes...

There was a bio grad student at Brown a couple years ago who poisoned his former girlfriend and her roommate by putting I-125 in their dinner. They found out when she set off a geiger counter in her lab the next day, they checked her apartment and found the hot dish that the guy had prepared.
The moral of the story is you should only use radiological poisoning on people who won't be around geiger counters.

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6. SRC on June 16, 2005 4:59 PM writes...

Weeding out klutzes fast is the key.

My office in academia had a raised door jamb (don't ask me why). Any prospective grad students who tripped over it already had 2.9 strikes against them.

OTOH from safety concerns, chemists at least by reputation have a high suicide rate.

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7. Jose on June 16, 2005 5:35 PM writes...

Re: suicide, especially in certain labs, like say, one at Harvard....

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8. Bill Tozier on June 16, 2005 5:50 PM writes...

Heh. "Hot dish". Heh.

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9. Telf on June 16, 2005 10:59 PM writes...

There was a case of suspected acrylamide poisoning involving a molecular biologist about a decade ago in Christchurch, New Zealand:

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10. Kevin Kenny on June 17, 2005 12:25 AM writes...

One incident that appears to have truly been
Just One of Those Things was the death of
Karen Wetterhahn as a consequence of poisoning
by dimethylmercury. She had practiced all the
supplier's recommended precautions; neither
she nor the supplier was aware that the
recommended gloves were permeable to the stuff.

Permalink to Comment

11. LemonZest on June 17, 2005 5:52 AM writes...

There was a pregnant woman researcher at the National Institutes of Health, I think, who was poisoned by her colleague who doped her water dispenser with a radioactive substance. It was on one of those news programs like Dateline NBC. I don't recall why he did it but it was probably academic jealousy.

Permalink to Comment

12. Maggie on June 17, 2005 2:25 PM writes...

Seems there was an accident a while ago (year?) in a well-known Research Institute (industrial) in Albany, NY. Anybody know anything about that?

Permalink to Comment

13. Chemist on June 21, 2005 6:51 AM writes...

Why does acrylamide seem to be so damn..well, i guess the word is...popular? Is it just the first obvious acute poison available in a mol bio lab? Wouldn't drinking acrylamide numb your throat? The Science article says they got sick before they were able to take too much in (1/10 LD, however...).

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