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Chemical spill at MU draws emergency response

Wednesday, August 17, 2011 | 11:09 p.m. CDT; updated 11:49 a.m. CDT, Thursday, August 18, 2011
From left, research assistants Dan Howard and Quang Nguyen chat on the curb with University police officer Chris Groves on Sixth Street outside of Lafferre Hall where a chemical spill occurred in a lab on Wednesday night, according to a statement from the MU News Bureau. Howard said he discovered the spill while in the building, but the cause of the spill, which was contained inside the room, is still under investigation.

COLUMBIA — A hazardous materials spill at Lafferre Hall at MU drew emergency responders and environmental and health services officials for a cleanup on Wednesday evening. No injuries were reported.

Firefighters responded to the call at about 8 p.m. at the building at 416 S. Sixth St. A glass container in a lab ruptured and spilled material on the floor, according to a news release from the fire department.

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The hazardous materials, which were not identified in the news release, were determined not to cause an "immediate threat to safety," and were contained within the lab space. About a half-gallon of the material was spilled.

Research assistant Dan Howard discovered the spill while in the building, but the cause of the spill is under investigation. Officials from MU Environmental Health and Safety will investigate further, according to a news release from the MU News Bureau.

The lab will be closed until MU Environmental Health and Safety officials conduct a secondary check of the lab Thursdy morning.


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Comments

Ellis Smith August 18, 2011 | 6:05 a.m.

The building itself is listed for renovation, as has been noted in the Missourian. The present condition of Lafferre Hall is an embarrassment to MU and to Engineering education at MU and to Engineering education at University of Missouri System.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 18, 2011 | 9:06 a.m.

Hopefully it wasn't a bottle of hydrogen hydroxide, another name for the insidious poison dihydrogen oxide.

(Report Comment)
Chris Cady August 18, 2011 | 9:34 a.m.

Chemists hate it when there are haz mat incidents and the story doesn't say what was spilled. Grrr.

But if it is the insidious and potentially deadly dihydrogen oxide, which is piped throughout the building, run for your lives! LOL

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 18, 2011 | 10:03 a.m.

ChrisCady: Yes, I'm surprised there is no identification of the "hazard".

Certainly there are chemicals that warrant evacuation: ether, hexane, various nitrogen oxides, etc., that can quickly convert to explosive or otherwise hazardous gases. Volatile acids and alkalis (HCL or NH3) would get me out of the room in a hurry. Perchloric acid isn't nice, either.

I remember stirring nitric/sulfuric acid in an erlenmeyer and the bottom dropped out of the flask. Craaack! The liquid landed between my wingtips and a bit splashed onto the curvaceous legs of an adjacent coed. Her leg hose went pfffftttt and I headed for the bicarbonate bottle (yes, short skirts and hose were onceuponatime worn in labs, believe it or not). Rubbing bicarbonate solution on her legs would have been a rather enjoyable experience under different circumstances, perhaps even for both of us, but her obviously put-on hysteria spoiled all prospects of that. I was sufficiently quick with the bicarbonate antidote, so her legs suffered only minor reddening. After it was all over, I checked out my shoes; they were starting to melt into the floor and the acid was starting on my socks. I hastily separated myself from leather and cotton and traveled to my apartment barefooted that night...it was winter and I vaguely remember something about snow.

We used to clean up our own spills, using what we learned from chemistry classes plus a quick read of the bottle. It's a wonder we survived intact.........

(Report Comment)
Joy Mayer August 18, 2011 | 10:28 a.m.

We're following up on the story this morning and hope to have an update for you soon! We're definitely trying to find out what spilled.
— Joy Mayer, Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire August 18, 2011 | 11:47 a.m.

Send it to IRAQ!!!

(Report Comment)
Joy Mayer August 18, 2011 | 12:51 p.m.

Here's today's update, folks. Still quite a few unanswered questions: http://www.columbiamissourian.com/storie...
— Joy Mayer, Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 18, 2011 | 1:05 p.m.

Joy Mayer: The new story is not-at-all clear.

The other rag in town is reporting that the ruptured bottle contained potassium hydroxide, aluminum, and copper sulfate. KOH and Al react to form hydrogen gas...I'm unsure of the role of the CuSO4. If the reaction had not gone to completion prior to storage, then excess hydrogen gas pressure can cause rupture. If all this is correct...it's not a good situation.

Apparently all the other solvents were in separate bottles as innocent bystanders.

(Report Comment)
Joy Mayer August 18, 2011 | 1:42 p.m.

Hi, Michael.

It looks to us like we have the same information as our friends across town. What are we missing?

Here's our story from today: http://www.columbiamissourian.com/storie...

Here's the Tribune's: http://www.columbiatribune.com/news/2011...

— Joy Mayer, Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 18, 2011 | 2:16 p.m.

Joy: Your article says, "Several common cleaning compounds (methanol, acetone and isopropyl alcohol) were found, in addition to potassium hydroxide, aluminum and copper sulfate, Basi said."

The Trib's article says, "They were told a glass container in a cabinet had ruptured and spilled less than a half-gallon of materials onto the floor of an engineering lab. The chemical mixture included potassium hydroxide, copper sulfate and aluminum that had been used in a process involving metal etching..."
________________________

The information available to us from both sources is that a single container ruptured. It is also reported that all noted chemicals were stored in a cabinet, presumably a special chemical storage cabinet. Generally, those cabinets contain a variety of solvents, each in a separate labeled bottle, including those mentioned in both articles. But, only one ruptured. Since I can think of no proper reagent that would contain ALL of the chemicals mentioned by Basi in your article, I conclude (based upon the Trib's article) that only ONE solvent containing copper sulfate, potassium hydroxide, and aluminum metal ruptured. Your article states that other solvents were found, but the implication is those solvents were found spilled on the floor. No...unless more than one bottle ruptured.

In addition, Basi portrayed acetone, methanol, and isopropyl alcohol as "cleaning solvents", as though they were found in a product like Mr. Clean. My guess is this was just his way of describing solvents that CAN be used as cleaning solvents...to journalists not trained as chemists. But, most certainly those solvents were not used to clean the kitchen; they have specific solvent properties used in lab work.

As a chemist, I still don't know exactly what happened (based upon the two reports), but the fact is the Trib's article seems the more authoritative to this point. The Missourian's article has elements that just don't fit into a conventional lab setting.

(Report Comment)
Emily Garnett August 18, 2011 | 2:46 p.m.

Michael: This is Emily, the reporter from the Missourian who wrote the update.

Thank you for lending your expertise to the discussion! You mention that my article states that some cleaning solvents were also found spilled, which you believe couldn't be correct. This is how Mr. Basi represented it to me. The Tribune says, "In addition, there were cleaning solvents — methanol, acetone and isopropyl alcohol — and some acids still being identified." I think that both our articles represent the presence of those solvents in the same manner...as present in the spill, even if it isn't clear what role they played in the original mixture.

I am certainly no chemist, and the information being shared with us is limited. Thanks for helping us try to understand what happened. If you have more insight that could help us continue to report this more accurately, please send me an e-mail at esgd49@mail.missouri.edu

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 18, 2011 | 5:05 p.m.

Emily: email on its way.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking August 19, 2011 | 3:37 a.m.

I'm suspecting that the spilled material was some kind of mixed waste, perhaps from etching printed circuit boards or something similar. It may have been kept in a cabinet because of its solvent content.

I agree that I can't think of a reason to have all these chemicals together in one bottle, unless it was some kind of waste (or "unwanted material", as EHS likes us ro call it).

DK

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith August 19, 2011 | 5:28 a.m.

"ASM Materials Engineering Dictionary" (J. R. Davis, ed.) defines "etchant" as follows: (1) A chemical solution used to etch metal to reveal structural details. (2) A solution used to remove, by chemical reaction, the unwanted portion of material from a printed circuit board. (3) Hydrofluoric acid or other agent used to attack the surface of glass for making a decoration.

(1) = A common and very important technique to prepare metal samples for visual and microscopic analysis, used in Metallurgy and Metallurgical Engineering. In Missouri, Metallurgical Engineering is only taught at MS&T.

(2) = I agree with Mark Foecking, this appears to be the most logical explanation.

(3) Glass is a ceramic. In Missouri, Ceramic Engineering is only taught at MS&T. (Hydrofluoric acid is a dangerous reagent.)

Of course that doesn't rule out (1) and (3), but they seem unlikely.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith August 19, 2011 | 8:08 a.m.

At some point there will be a report (it's required). Whether further details make it to the media or not, one would think that since this is a university system, copies of that report would be distributed to the other campuses so they can examine their situations and make any corrections that might be needed.

(Report Comment)
Chris Cady August 19, 2011 | 3:29 p.m.

Half a gallon of etching solution on the floor isn't big news. If a tanker of it had spilled on Providence Road, though, I would definitely be wanting very specific information about what was spilled. I think that's the take-home point here.

Sadly, I never got to hose down a pretty girl in the lab like Michael W. did, despite many spills. That was a brutal mixture you had there - isn't that "fuming sulfuric acid"? Did you get her phone number?

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking August 19, 2011 | 4:49 p.m.

Chris Cady wrote:

"That was a brutal mixture you had there - isn't that "fuming sulfuric acid"?"

It's not. Fuming sulfuric acid is H2SO4 with added sulfur trioxide (in essence, greater than 100% sulfuric acid - the sulfur trioxide is "anhydrous sulfuric acid").

"Aqua regia" is a mixture of three parts hydrochloric acid with one part nitric acid. It can dissolve gold, which neither acid can do by itself.

Hosing down a pretty girl in the lab today can get you in trouble - is it assualt from the spill or assault from the bicarbonate?

DK

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 19, 2011 | 6:32 p.m.

Mark asks, "...is it assualt from the spill or assault from the bicarbonate?"
_________________________

Neither. Back then we called it an "accident". No one got sued. No one got yelled at. No one got called down by the professor or grad student. There was no hazmat team called. There were no reporters. There were no articles in the newspaper. There were no sirens except what was emanating from the lass's voice box.

There was also no phone number...although by the time of the next lab, we were friends just like before. Strangely, tho...after this episode, she always seemed to shy away a bit when I was stirring stuff. I think she also kept a double cowboy holster, one for bicarbonate and one for dilute HOAc. Seemed like an overreaction to me but, hey, it was neither my hose that went pffffttt nor my legs that got an abrupt, unanticipated, and unasked-for massage.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 19, 2011 | 7:24 p.m.

Mark and Chris:

Top 10 things I heard/did in grad school:

(1) Most panicky: "Hey, why won't this mercury boil?"

(2) Most erotic: "I'd do *anything* to get a "C" in this course. ANYTHING!

(3) Most taken-aback: My sink is full of dishes, it's late at night in Schweitzer Hall, I'm working at my desk and...all of a sudden...one of the professors bursts into my lab, looks at the sink, turns to me and says, "How can I pee in the sink if you have it full of dishes?"

Say what?
Hey, come back! Who's gonna do those dishes?

(4) Nicest view: Lady Godiva (a Stephen's chick onna horse during the "streaking" dayz.)

(5) Nicest number: I was number 225 streaking through the columns the night we set the record.

(6) Second most panicky (Or, most stupid): An open window (nice day), and I hear a scream from the road. A young girl has been hit by a car. I jumped from the second floor window, over the 6" deep window wells of the ground floor, over the holly bushes, and ran to help. Afterwards, I thought about trying out for the Olympics, but there was no suitable event.

(7) Most failed experiment: There was a persimmon tree next to Schweitzer. Guys down the hall (carbohydrate chemists) tried to make persimmon beer. It didn't work. The taste went away after a coupla weeks.

(8) Most burned esophagus: Guy down the hall was from West Virgina. He vacationed there and brought back some white lightening....in a mason jar. I tried it.

(9) Most continuous vomiting: Guy down the hall tried to turn me on to a chew.

(10) Worst part of being a grad student: Pre-word processor days. Trying to type a thesis without ANY mistakes...and white-out and erasures are verboten. I almost cut off all my fingers.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith August 19, 2011 | 9:17 p.m.

Chemistry is interesting but it's actually rather tame.

Matriculate on a campus where commercial EXPLOSIVES are inventoried and routinely used. (MS&T, Colorado School of Mines, New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology, Michigan Technological University, Montana Tech, etc.)

(Stop your whining and hand me a detonator.)

(Report Comment)
frank christian August 19, 2011 | 9:47 p.m.

And I missed all that because I didn't continue my education? Had I only known!

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 19, 2011 | 11:07 p.m.

Ellis: Chemistry is interesting but it's actually rather tame.
____________________________

Yeah, that lump of sodium hidden in the flask at the bottom of the dishes in the sink certainly tamed up a bit when I added water.

;^)

Ahhh, Ellis.....do I have to remind you that explosives ARE chemistry. Engineering is simply knowing how to use that chemistry. Rather simple stuff when done remotely. We have to make it first up close and personal.

We're ALWAYS first....because you are forced to use one or more of OUR 92 letters of the alphabet.

Tag, your it.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking August 20, 2011 | 5:59 a.m.

Ever spill lithium aluminum hydride onto the lip of a fume hood with an outside air draft (in Florida)? Humidity and hydrides don't mix...

DK

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith August 20, 2011 | 7:01 a.m.

Michael: You are correct. Explosives are chemistry, as is the combustion of fuels. Note: The campuses I listed are also equipped with modern chemical laboratory facilities (Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, etc.).

Frank: Whether you missed anything, and exactly what you missed, are a matter of conjecture.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith August 20, 2011 | 7:24 a.m.

Michael: Regarding your numbered point about white lightning, as a Chemist I assume you're aware there's a still at an undisclosed location in Shannon County, Missouri which was designed and constructed, and the operation of which is supervised, by PhDs in Chemical Engineering.

Utmost care is employed in producing the product, which is aged for a minimum of 22 hours. (If you don't care to drink it, you can use it to remove bugs and tar spots from your automobile.)

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 20, 2011 | 9:58 a.m.

Ellis:

Aged 22 hours?

Why so long? You tryin' for a vintage product or sumpin'?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 20, 2011 | 10:43 a.m.

Mark: Ever spill lithium aluminum hydride onto the lip of a fume hood with an outside air draft (in Florida)?
_____________________

No, not done that one. Sounds rather cool, but then I wasn't there.

All my semi-explosive events seem to involve sodium metal.

It hates me.

(Report Comment)
Sally Willis August 23, 2011 | 1:45 p.m.

Glad to see Chris could take a break from all his "running around" to do some actual police work:p

(Report Comment)

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