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UPDATE: MU researchers allowed to re-enter Schweitzer Hall after Monday explosion

Tuesday, June 29, 2010 | 6:42 p.m. CDT; updated 9:28 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Medical and fire personnel are investigating an explosion that took place in Schweitzer Hall on Monday. Four people were injured, one critically, in the explosion and taken to University Hospital.

COLUMBIA — After the Monday explosion of lab equipment in MU's Schweitzer Hall, the Columbia Fire Department and MU News Bureau are not releasing the names of the four victims, one of whom sustained injuries previously listed as life threatening.

 

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Similar explosions have occurred at other universities, but the cause of this incident is not known.

 

The explosion occurred in Schweitzer Hall, Room 211, and damage spread to Room 212 as well. The lab belongs to MU biochemistry professor Judy Wall, MU spokesman Christian Basi said.

Wall declined to comment on the incident and wouldn't detail the experiments conducted or gas mixtures used at the time of the explosion. Wall's lab was used for experiments with bacteria.

As of Tuesday afternoon, according to an MU news release, cleanup was under way by MU campus facilities and environmental health and safety crews.

 

Airgas employees were also on site Tuesday. Airgas Mid America, a gas distributor in Holts Summit, referred questions to Doug Sherman, director of marketing communcations for Airgas. Sherman confirmed that Airgas did supply gas to the MU biochemistry department and that Airgas cylinders were in Wall’s lab but did not know the specific gasses and mixtures supplied.

 

“All the cylinders were removed to be tested for structural integrity,” Sherman said. He said they are testing the cylinders to see if they can be used in the future.

 

MU researchers and employees working in Schweitzer Hall said they had been instructed to refer all questions to the MU News Bureau.

Researchers were allowed to go back to work Tuesday in MU's Schweitzer Hall a day after a lab explosion injured four people, one seriously.

 

One graduate student, two postdoctoral students and a lab technician were burned and received shrapnel and impact injuries in the incident. One remained in the hospital in "good" condition, a MU news release said.

 

The university said it would not be releasing the names of those involved in the incident. Basi cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that governs the release of information about students and university personnel privacy policies when he refused to provide the names of the victims.

 

On Tuesday morning, Columbia Battalion Chief Steven Sapp said investigators were still looking into the possibility of technical failure and that the department might need to send the lab equipment to independent investigators for evaluation. He said that no "official report” existed as of 4 p.m. Tuesday and that there was no public record that contained the victims' names. The department withdrew a statement made Monday night that said human error led to the explosion, a conclusion Sapp called "premature." He blamed a mix-up at the department for the claim.

 

In a news release, Columbia Fire Capt. Eric Hartman said the explosion was caused by the ignition of hydrogen gas in an anaerobic hood — an oxygen-free chamber used for working with bacteria that can't survive in oxygen. A flammable combination of gases used for the device came into contact with an ignition source, the release said, resulting in an explosion. The source of the ignition remains unknown.

 

Hartman said the number of injuries was "certainly reduced" because of MU being on summer break, which meant fewer people working in the facility.

 

Explosions in anaerobic chambers are not unprecedented, according to a research paper written by Mike Cox of Anaerobe Systems in San Jose, Calif.

 

Cox — who previously experienced two small anaerobic chamber explosions — wrote that when a chamber is transitioning to an oxygen-free state, specific combinations of oxygen and hydrogen can become flammable, making an explosion possible if something ignites the gas. Cox said most textbooks recommend using 10 percent hydrogen, but explained that 5 percent is safer because after it is diluted with air it cannot explode.

 

“The root of the problem is having hydrogen in excess of 5 percent,” Cox said. He said the chambers usually contain a catalyst that converts entering hydrogen and oxygen into water. He said that the catalyst can “get hot and cause ignition.”

 

Smaller explosions have occurred at the University of Michigan and the University of Oklahoma in the past; no injuries were reported with either explosion.

 

After Monday's explosion, the fire alarm was triggered and the building's fire sprinklers activated, extinguishing most of the fire, according to a Columbia Fire Department release. The building was evacuated, and Hartman said the fire was contained in about 10 minutes. Fire crews then began working to ventilate chemicals.

 

Seventeen windows were blown out in the third-floor explosion.

 

The university is looking into whether additional precautions are necessary, the MU News Bureau release said.

 

“I’m concerned about those injured and all affected by this incident,” MU Chancellor Brady Deaton said in the release. “One of our campus priorities is the safety of our faculty, staff and students.”


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