Increase safety in laboratories

Increase safety in laboratories

The recent blast at the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in Bengaluru occurred when scientists were testing a suspicious liquid found at Raichur last year which had killed a ragpicker there. When scientists conducted tests out to figure the contents of the liquid, suspected to be Tri-Acetone Triperoxide, they poured it into an empty flask which resulted in an explosion. Tri-Acetone Triperoxide, is a primary a high explosive formed through a mixture of acetone and hydrogen peroxide. A primary explosive is extremely sensitive to stimuli such as impact, friction, heat, static electricity, or electromagnetic radiation.

Some primary explosives are also known as contact explosives. Only a relatively small amount of energy is required for an explosion. Generally, primary explosives are considered to be those compounds that are more sensitive than Pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) which is a secondary explosive.

The test sample pertained to a case from October 2018 in Raichur, where a waste picker Anantamma, 32, died when a can which contained this chemical exploded, as she picked it up. The explosion left her husband and son injured. Explosives are solid or liquid substances which are capable of undergoing rapid chemical reaction producing gas at such a temperature and pressure and at such speed as to cause damage to the surroundings.

These chemical reactions can be initiated by heat, light mechanical shock, static electricity, and/or certain catalysts. The testing of explosive liquids involves the determination of various properties of the different energetic materials that are used in commercial, mining, and military applications. It is highly desirable to measure the conditions under which these explosive liquids can be set off for several reasons, including: safety in handling, safety in storage, and safety in use.

Such hazardous chemicals are either flammable, corrosive, explosive, and peroxide forming agents require special precautions. Moreover, storage of incompatible chemicals together may have explosive or disastrous results.

Every laboratory either industrial, academic, testing or research needs to follow safety protocols. For instance, only last December an accident at the Department of Aerospace Laboratory for Hypersonic and Shockwave at the Indian Institute of Science, (IISc) Bangalore, killed one research scholar and grievously injured three others due to the release of Hydrogen gas from high-pressure storage. It resulted in a rapid expansion of the gas which is synonymous with energy release and threw the research scholar against a wall with tremendous force that killed him instantaneously.

In June 2018 there was a blast at the High Energy Material Research Laboratory (HEMRL) under the Defence Research; Development Organisation, Pune. In March 2017 three students were injured in a blast when a test tube containing sulfuric acid reacted and exploded spontaneously at a college chemistry laboratory at Bhubaneshwar.

Many potential hazards are associated with the storage and handling of laboratory chemicals. These hazards may be minimized by understanding the properties of the chemicals and by developing procedures by which they may be handled safely. Simply storing chemicals alphabetically is not prudent.

Chemical safety has many scientific and technical components. Among these are toxicology, ecotoxicology and the process of chemical risk assessment which requires a detailed knowledge of exposure and of biological effects.

In the recent blast at the Bangalore laboratory, the testing of such materials requires adherence to safety protocols: wear a protective laboratory coat, safety glasses and a full-face shield when working with explosive materials or performing any reactions that may lead to explosion. Perhaps a blast shield should have be used to prevent grievous injury. Also blast protective clothing, depending on amounts and stability of compounds used for testing. General chemical safety in a laboratory requires that the analyst should have the knowledge of material safety data sheets (MSDS) of the material that needs to be handled. 

(The writer is a faculty member at Christ (deemed to be University), Bengaluru)

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