So, you’re new to grad school in chemistry. Congratulations! I’m sure you’re working hard in your classes and all, and you’re well-prepared for the academic challenges that await you.
Unfortunately, so many of you are missing a critical chemistry laboratory skill: how to not kill your coworkers, by poison, fire, explosions, and the list goes on.
I’ve had a lot of practice dodging the lethal traps left for me by ridiculously careless chemistry grad students over the years. I’m here to teach your stupid ass, so you don’t end up killing me or anyone else.
Believe it or not, except where noted, all of this actually happened to me at some point. This shit isn’t funny, so pay attention, damnit.
In grad school I once needed to get rid of some strong acid solution. Interestingly, I found that some jackass had stored the bottle of strong acid waste right next to the bottle containing basic cyanide waste. Mix the two together, which is easy to accidentally do in such conditions, and you get deadly cyanide gas.
Do you hear me? Cyanide gas is deadly!
I’ll help you out by putting it in the form of an equation:
basic cyanide + strong acid = kill your coworkers
Why the hell would you store those two solutions right next to each other? Don’t do it. I don’t particularly want to inhale a fatal neurotoxin because of your stupid ass.
Rule number 2: Sodium metal explodes in water.
This didn’t happen to me, but to another student in my grad school. Some asshole chemistry grad student apparently decided that the sink was a good place to store a chunk of sodium metal. Unbelievable.
Another chemistry grad student, innocently enough, subsequently turned on the water, and predictably, KAPOW! He was lucky in that I think he only burned off his eyebrows.
Rule number 3: Correctly label your chemical waste containers.
So far so good, right? Nope. The waste solution exploded right in front of me and rained down all over the fume hood. I think the “nitric acid waste” bottle actually contained piranha waste. Piranha solution (a mix of sulfuric acid and hydrogen peroxide) reacts explosively with a lot of things. You’d better be goddamn sure you label it correctly, you lazy bastard.
Another time as a postdoc I dumped an organic solvent into a bucket labeled, “organic waste.” Unfortunately the bucket was mislabeled, and actually contained strong acid waste. It shot back up at me and splashed me in the eyes (no, I was not wearing safety goggles; my bad).
My faculty supervisor said that the doctor’s report of me having small holes in my cornea wasn’t a big deal, because she also once got a hole in her cornea, and she sent out a brief “be safe” e-mail to the group. Thanks for your consideration; I feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
In summary, if you mislabel a chemical waste container in a way that’s likely to seriously injure or kill the next user, that’s a bad thing, all right? Are we clear? Good. I’m glad we cleared that up, because that’s sure as hell not blindingly obvious, right?
Rule number 4: For crying out loud, clean up your shit.
Possibly nothing pissed me off more in a chemistry lab than finding someone’s leftover “mystery powder” spread all over the benchtop (well, that and getting stuck by needles and glass bits left on the benchtop).
Everyone loves “mystery powder.” What the hell is it? There’s no telling. Sugar? Arsenic? Damnit, I don’t know, and that makes me supremely itchy. Maybe I’m just being cranky, but I don’t want the “surprise in the middle” to be a two-week visit to the hospital.
When I accidentally spill a little water, and this causes green vapor to rise up from the benchtop, that’s not funny, you jackass! Just spend 10 fucking seconds cleaning up after yourself, and we’re all good.
Dear chemistry grad students: please don’t kill me. Yes, I know, I didn’t (and I still don’t) like you either, so the feeling’s more than mutual. Let’s just keep it to burning voodoo dolls of each other, OK?