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Archive → December, 2011

2011: The year in blog numbers

Well, we’re right about at the end of 2011 and it’s time to thank you find readers for checking in with us throughout the year. We’re slowly rebuilding our momentum here at GlobCasino since moving from ScienceBlogs and were just shy of 90,000 visits for the year. Many of our colleagues get that many each month or week, and a few even each day. Still, we’re very happy that you take time to read here – we consider our readers to be top-quality – brilliant, creative, good-looking, and they even smell good, too! I’ll take 90,000 of you folks any day over millions of other less desirable readers.

I can’t resist the temptation to put up our year-end traffic report since I have the data available and I just love data sets. In addition, I find it interesting to see what topics garnered the greatest traffic. Below, I’ve put up the list of posts that received 100 or more views. The homepage is obviously the first because of those who have us saved as a browser bookmark. But, no surprise, our major topic of interest overall was synthetic marijuana and other until-recently-legal high such as “bath salts.” But ranking quite highly were our posts on dietary supplements containing aromatase inhibitors for bodybuilding and the newly-approved natural product analog for multiple sclerosis, fingolimod (Gilenya).

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Friday chemical safety round-up

Chemical health and safety news from the last week of 2011:

  • Already discussed this week: The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office filed felony charges against the University of California and UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran in the death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji
  • From the Risk Science blog: The quiet emergency of hazardous medical waste in developing countries
  • The U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board weighed in on accidents at hazardous waste facilities
  • A year ago, a fire at Adams Plating in Michigan left the owner burned and water and soil at the site contaminated with chromium(VI) and cyanide (pdf). In hindsight, responders say they should have done more pre-incident planning.

Fires and explosions:

  • Five firemen plus 15 others died in explosions while fighting a fire at a state-owned chemical warehouses in Myanmar; an additional 91 people were injured
  • Leaking silane caused an explosion at solar energy company 1366 Technologies in Massachusetts; no one was injured
  • A blaze at the Inmetco metal recycling plant in Pennsylvania started in a storage area for batteries

Leaks, spills, and other exposures:

  • Sulfur dioxide from the Delaware City Refinery, owned by PBF Energy Partners
  • On roads and railways: methyl bromide, “copper concentrate”, acetone, potassium hydroxide and potassium carbonate

Not covered: meth labs; ammonia leaks; incidents involving floor sealants, cleaning solutions, or pool chemicals; and fires from oil, natural gas, or other fuels.

We wish a happy, healthy, and safe 2012 to all of our readers!

More on the Sangji case, with key factors in the incident

The big news of the chemical safety beat this week was that the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office filed felony charges against the University of California and UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran in the death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji. I’ve written a news story and two blog posts on the topic already; here are some additional links from yesterday and today (if I’ve missed anything, post it in the comments):

  • @ChemBark – Some thoughts on the UCLA/Harran/Sangji case
  • @discodermolide – Is it too early to ask for automation in lab safety?
  • @Chemjobber – 60 mL syringes can get unstable; Innnnnnnteresting: UCLA vice chancellor of legal affairs Kevin Reed on the Sheri Sangji case; UCLA’s PR strategy, plain as day: a tragedy, not a crime
  • From Reddit Chemistry – Arrest warrant issued for Patrick Harran

There’s also some Twitter discussion about whether there’s too much emphasis on the fact that Sangji wasn’t wearing a lab coat. First, I’ll note that there were several problems with Sangji’s experiment that day:

  • she was syringing the tert -butyl lithium (tBuLi) rather than cannulating
  • she was using a large, plastic syringe that would have been impossible to dry and difficult to handle
  • she was using a too-short needle and likely had to tip up the bottle to get to the liquid, making the syringe even more difficult to handle
  • she had an open flask of hexane in the hood

And when all of that led, somehow, to the syringe plunger coming out of the barrel and the tBuLi igniting everything nearby, Sangji further wasn’t wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) – a flame-resistant lab coat. Such a lab coat might not have prevented the fire entirely, but it would have slowed it and likely reduced how badly Sangji was burned in the time it took to put out the flames.

Another critical component to the incident is whether Sangji had prepared herself for the worst that could happen and at least mentally rehearsed the appropriate response: get to the shower. From the Cal/OSHA interview with the person who was in the lab with Sangji, it sounds like she panicked and ran around, fanning the flames.

All of this, of course, goes to training: Was she trained to know the best experimental procedure? Was she trained to consider and wear a flame-resistant lab coat? Was she trained to think through the experiment, what might go wrong, and how she should respond? Were her labmates trained in how to handle a panicking colleague with a shirt on fire?

The key point about lab safety is that it’s never just about one thing: It’s not just about minimizing use of hazardous reagents, or engineering and using the safest procedure, or using appropriate PPE, or knowing what to do when things go wrong. It’s about all of those together, with one component as the failsafe for another.

Edited to add Reddit Chemistry link.

CT Scans For Holiday Hams

Today’s post is by Sophia L. Cai, an assistant production editor and Newscripts contributor here at C&EN.

Country ham. Credit: John Goetzinger/Wikimedia Commons

While hoards of holiday feasters head back to the gym in the new year, some scientists may be wandering back into the lab to study the holiday feast ingredients. In a just-accepted study in the Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry, Eva Santos-Garcés and colleagues at Spain’s Institute of Agricultural-Alimentary Research & Technology (IRTA) demonstrate a way to monitor the dry curing of hams—a process that produces salty meats such as prosciutto and country hams that can store for months. Monitoring salt and water content ensures a quality product, but it also helps determine water activity, a measure of potential microbial growth and therefore shelf-life.

Instead of using testing methods that require destroying the tasty meats, these researchers have taken a more clinical approach: using a CT scanner. That’s right, the same computed tomography scans more recognizably used to examine head trauma patients or to prescreen for types of cancer have garnered the attention of the food science community in recent years. Because salt ions produce a marked increase in CT attenuation values, the researchers could easily track salt-related benchmarks of hams at various stages of the preservation process. They combined their own CT analytical tools and predictive models in a case study to successfully characterize salt distribution, dehydration, and water activity in dry-cured hams in two different dry-curing production lines.

But popping a ham in a CT scanner isn’t quite as easy as popping it in the oven. The group is currently working to overcome disturbances in its data that are caused by the presence of intramuscular fat, for example.

In the short term, CT-scanned hams will probably be relegated to the lab bench, but Santos-Garcés and her team say that, in the future, industrial producers could take advantage of this technology. Grab some random ham off the belt, run it through a CT scanner, and adjust the salt and water content of the entire batch accordingly. Voilà! In the meantime, though, makers of dry-cured hams will just have to rely on more destructive methods of testing the saltiness of hams in time for the next holiday season.

More on the charges in the Sangji case

Following up on yesterday’s post about the charges brought against UCLA and Patrick Harran in Sheri Sangji’s death, my story is now up online and includes a pdf of the court document from Tuesday.

Safety Zone co-blogger Russ Phifer was interviewed for several news stories yesterday. Russ also appeared on a Southern California NPR program, along with UCLA’s Kevin Reed and Loyola Law School’s Laurie Levenson. You can listen to the discussion here.

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Lauren Wolf.

Snooki thinks the ocean is salty because of whale sperm. Credit: Flickr user ashpya

From Snooki saying that the ocean is salty because of whale sperm to Michelle Bachmann explaining that an HPV vaccine caused mental retardation, the worst “scientific” claims of 2011. [Huffington Post]

So there’s this abandoned atomic energy plant just taking up space in Germany. What to do, what to do? Of course! Turn it into an amusement park. Duh. [Wired] (HT to Jyllian Kemsley for pointing to this tidbit.)

You’re gonna need to sit down for this: the Egyptian pyramids were likely NOT made by aliens. Materials scientists are on the case. [iO9]

The science of eating boogers. [BoingBoing]

Scientists report that elephants have five toes rather than six, ending the long debate. The Newscripts gang sure is glad that’s all cleared up. [Mirror]

Ever wanted to look through someone’s brain a layer at a time? Don’t we all? Well, look no further. [iO9]

UC, Patrick Harran face criminal charges in death of Sheri Sangji

Sangji's syringe (Credit: UCLA)

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office filed charges yesterday against the University of California and UC Los Angeles professor Patrick Harran for felony violations of labor laws in the death of chemistry researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji.

Sangji died three years ago from injuries sustained in a laboratory fire.

My story should post online soon and will appear in Monday’s issue of C&EN. In the meantime, here are links to other coverage and blogosphere/twittersphere discussion:

  • @latimes – Felony charges filed against UC and a UCLA chemistry professor after fatal laboratory fire
  • @AP – Charges in UCLA lab death first of its kind in US
  • @Chemjobber – UC Regents and Prof. Patrick Harran to face 3 felony charges in death of Sheri Sangji
  • @ProfLikeSubst – Lab safety and who is responsible
  • Mitch at Chemistry Blog – Arrest warrant issued for Patrick Harran
  • @ChemBark – UCLA professor Patrick Harran charged in Sheri Sangji’s death
  • @Dereklowe – The UCLA lab fatality: Criminal charges filed
  • @davidperrey – Felony charges for UCLA and professor Harran
  • @discodermolide – Professorial oversight, availability bias and the Sheri Sangji case
  • @macdrifter – UCLA professor charged in death of researcher
  • Captain Pegleg – Felony charges in UCLA lab accident
  • @Richvn (Nature) – Chemistry professor faces criminal charges after researcher’s death
  • Beryl Benderly (Science Careers) – Professor and UCLA criminally charged in the death of Sheri Sangji
  • No blog posts, but check out for Twitter discussion: @biochembelle, @piperjklemm

For my part right now, I’d like to address a few frequent comments I keep hearing or seeing:

  • “Sangji was a graduate student” – No, she was a staff researcher. She was therefore also indisputably an employee. Whether graduate students or postdocs are considered employees is a gray area that affects things such as whether they are eligible for worker’s compensation or OSHA agencies have oversight authority.
  • “Sangji was an experienced chemist” – She was experienced in one specific context, which is that she was experienced for a 23-year-old who had graduated the previous spring with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. She was no more experienced than a first- or at most second-year graduate student.
  • “Sangji was working alone” – There was someone in the lab with her and someone else in an adjacent office. It’s unclear, however, if either knew what Sangji was doing experimentally.
  • “Sangji was killed because she wasn’t wearing a lab coat” – The lack of a lab coat was one of several factors in the incident. Nevertheless, had Sangji been wearing a flame-resistant lab coat (not a standard polyester/cotton one!), her injuries probably would have been less severe. It would also have helped had she gone straight for the safety shower or stopped/dropped/rolled to put out the flames.

The other thing I see floating around the internet today is variations on: “Sangji chose to do the experiment the way she did, she killed herself, the professor shouldn’t shoulder the blame.” But in California, at least (and probably elsewhere, but I’m most familiar with California), employers and employee managers are legally required to uphold occupational safety or health standards. That means that employers must train, retrain, remind, and enforce. And that’s why industrial workers get fired for not working safely–because if their employer allowed them to keep doing so, their employer would be liable for whatever bad things might happen.

Which brings us to why UC (Sangji’s employer) and Harran (Sangji’s manager) are now on the hook in this case. From the charges, this is what was legally expected of them:

  • Correct unsafe workplace conditions and procedures in a timely manner – an inspection two months before the fire identified multiple problems in the lab, including people not wearing personal protective equipment, and it’s unclear how many of the problems were addressed
  • Require clothing appropriate for the work to be worn – but Sangji was wearing a polyester shirt and no flame-resistant lab coat
  • Provide chemical safety training to employees. Implement safe work practices, emergency procedures and personal protective equipment – Sangji did not receive university Environmental Health & Safety training, it appears that one-on-one training was lacking, she did not use the procedure recommended by the chemical manufacturer or Harran, and she was not wearing personal protective equipment

Legally, this also hinges on the word “willfully”: Did UCLA and Harran do their best to enforce safe work behavior or did they let things slide?

For those who still think that a professor should not be held liable for what happens in his or her lab, let me ask this: If a UCLA facilities manager sent a worker up to trim a tree without ensuring that the worker knew how to handle a chainsaw or that the worker used fall-prevention equipment, and the worker somehow got killed, would you be shocked by criminal charges against the manager? If not, then why hold a professor to a different standard?

Updated to add some links I missed earlier.

Highlights from the International Year of Chemistry

As the International Year of Chemistry comes to an end, it’s worth looking back on some of the amazing contests and events that took place. Many of them have left behind lasting resources that will be useful for decades to come.

The Future We Create
A group of 30 of the brightest minds in chemistry delivered lectures on problems that future generations will face, such as finding sustainable fuels or feedstocks, and ways that chemistry may be able to solve those problems.

Honors and Activities for Women in Science
This year, the Royal Society of Chemistry elected its first female president, and the cover of the September 2011 issue of Nature Chemistry featured a portrait of Marie Curie made from a mosaic of photographs of female scientists. And Future We Create hosted a remarkable virtual conference on the future of women’s roles in science.
Nature Chemistry Cover

YouTube Mania
Dow Chemical and The Franklin Institute created a series of videos called “Celebrating Chemistry.” The series features lots of experiments that kids can do at home.

The “It’s, Chemistry, Eh?” video contest motivated lots of students to make charming short films, including a great parody of Material girl.

Nearly 700 students submitted videos to the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s “It’s Elemental” contest.

A New Blog is Born
Inspired by the International Year of Chemistry, @sulfur_blue created a new blog called Everyday Chemistry in an attempt to generate enthusiasm for chemistry in the general public. Be sure to check out the list of chemistry-adapted movie titles.

Caring for Water
Thousands of students around the world built solar stills, tested the pH and salinity of their water, and learned about providing safe drinking water as part of the Global Water Experiment. Meanwhile, the American Chemical Society raised money for and awareness of the Pennies for PUR program, which provides packets of water purification chemicals to areas where they are needed.

Special Issues
In honor of the International Year of Chemistry, C&EN’s June 27 issue featured a collection of essays on the contributions of chemistry to humanity. Nature created an IYC website with dozens of articles about everything from research to careers.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the IYC activities that occurred over the last twelve months. Feel free to share in the comments any of your favorite activities that didn’t get a mention.