Safety Article

Safety Article - NEWS NATURE|Vol 441|1 June 2006 SPECIAL...

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NEWS NATURE | Vol 441 | 1 June 2006 560 SPECIAL REPORT S omething that felt like an earthquake hit the French town of Mulhouse on 24 March. The explosion at the National Institution of Higher Learning in Chemistry (ENSCMu) killed Dominique Burget, a 41- year-old photochemist. It also sent ripples of concern around the world. Although official investigations are expected to last until the end of the year, it appears that residues of the flammable gas ethene in a pressure vessel were responsible. Burget was working in the lab above the explosion and had nothing to do with the experiment, which also severely injured a 19-year-old student in the room next door. “She is now out of danger and comes back to the school next week,” Serge Neunlist, director of ENSCMu, said on 23 May. The explosion caused roughly 10 million (US$130 million) of damage and destroyed about 4,000 m 2 of the building, which will take at least three years to rebuild. Chemistry’s reputation for big bangs might suggest that Mulhouse was no freak acci- dent. Gather any group of chemists together and before long they are likely to be exchanging stories about heart-stopping near-misses or discussing someone involved in a serious accident. Is chemistry really so dangerous? Those responsible for the safety of research labs say such stories may perpetuate out-of-date myths. “A lot of it is reminiscence to ‘the good old days’ of chemistry,” says Alan Kendall, safety officer at the University of Oxford, UK. “There’s a public perception that is years behind the reality,” agrees Richard Firn, a biol- ogist who chairs the laboratory safety commit- tee at the University of York, UK. “Things have changed a lot in the past 10 to 15 years.” Swathes of occupational-health legislation in the 1970s, which established, for example, the US government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), have spurred the change in culture. One of the most important factors is that risk assessment is now built into scientists’ routines. Each chemical used comes with a list of potential risks and appropriate safety pre- cautions, although unpredicted toxicity can affect even the most careful chemist, as Karen Wetterhahn found to her cost in 1996 (see ‘Cautionary tales’). And practices such as eating lunch at the bench, mouth pipetting and washing hands with benzene (now known to be a carcino- gen) have largely been con- signed to history — apart from the odd emeritus pro- fessor reluctant to change methods that they have used for decades. Better analytical tech-
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Safety Article - NEWS NATURE|Vol 441|1 June 2006 SPECIAL...

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