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Many think scientists live the easy, pampered life of a rock star. They see Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, or Michio Kaku on a talk show talking about astronomy and physics and think to themselves: "Hey, I sure wish I had their easy, pampered, rock-star life!" Well, as one who does have "science groupies," I can tell you it ain't all that easy and there are hazards. The great majority of these result from stupidity. Not mine, but that of others.

Previous writings have documented my encounters with rogue lab rats. Bites and scratches from lab animals and the occasional crazed medical student are part of the job. We also deal with radioactive substances: usually isotopes of carbon (C-14), phosphorous (P-32), and tritium, which is hydrogen-3 or H-3. C-14 and H-3 aren't too bad to work with because they are low-energy isotopes but P-32 can be a problem. It is a high-energy beta particle that poses a health threat to humans if exposure is high and prolonged.

While I was at the University of Virginia I worked in a lab that used quite a bit of P-32. Thankfully, my project only required the occasional use of it. Two other post-docs in the lab, however, used P-32 quite a bit. They also tended to get sloppy at times. We had to wear radiation dosimeters on our clothing and/or hands to detect any contamination. The university would also perform random Geiger counts of the lab at any time. On one of these inspections the safety officer found a lot of contamination on lab equipment and clothing of the two post-docs. This resulted in a shut-down of the lab, massive cleaning efforts, and the removal of the post-docs' clothing. Right there in the lab! They were not allowed to leave the lab until they surrendered their clothing. They found it very humiliating to be wearing only lab coats. Luckily they buttoned in front! The walk out to their vehicles must have been embarrassing and also uncomfortable as it was February and cold. The lab director was written up for not providing adequate monitoring which enraged him. The post-docs never lived it down.

Two years later I was at Saint Louis University. The only radioactive substance we dealt with was H-3 and radioactive contamination was not an issue. However, stupidity definitely was.

This lab had a particularly obnoxious post-doc named Dave. He was from Wales which, in his mind, made him superior to most Americans. I took an instant dislike to him. Dave's project involved the attempt to purify a marijuana-like substance from mammalian brain tissue. The brains were obtained commercially and were sourced from rats or cows. I wished the source to be Dave, but I doubted suitable material was available.

The brain tissue had to be blended to a milkshake-like consistency so Dave decided to use a typical kitchen blender. There are blenders made for laboratory use that are much sturdier and designed to not spark when the "on" button is pushed. But using a kitchen blender was fine as long as the brains were blended in a water-based buffer.

One day, Dave decided to blend the brains in acetone which is an organic solvent found in fingernail polish remover. I was in the back of the lab along with several other lab personnel when a fireball erupted in the front of the lab. When Dave started the blender, it sparked and ignited the acetone fumes. The explosion was loud, alarms rang, and smoke filled the lab. I grabbed a fire extinguisher and sprayed my way out into the hallway, followed by the others who had been in the back of the lab. Luckily the fire burned itself out quickly. But the research building is adjacent to Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital, and any alarm triggered the arrival of emergency services, including five hook-and-ladder trucks from the fire department. The hospital and vehicle traffic along busy Grand Boulevard were shut down as emergency protocols were enacted. The blender was burnt to a crisp, Dave lost his eyebrows, and the powder from the fire extinguisher covered him and most of his work area. Dave was loudly chewed out by the captain of the fire department and the department chairman in front of the entire department. I called him Sparky for the rest of his tenure at SLU, which did not last much longer.

Luckily my Ozark common sense limited my mishaps mainly to rat handling. I never punctured myself with a contaminated needle nor destroyed equipment. While I did dream up scenarios to rid my world of Dave and radioactive post-docs (and irritating medical students), I never acted on any of them.

That's my story, anyway.

-- Devin Houston is the president/CEO of Houston Enzymes. Send comments or questions to The opinions expressed are those of the author.

Editorial on 01/10/2018

Print Headline: Hazards in the laboratory

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