An Undergraduate Perspective of Academic Chemistry Laboratories

Here at the University of Arizona, I find myself often being another body in the mass cluster of student traffic going to and from classes. As part of this mass, I have noticed how large a volume of students easily flows in and out of Koffler (the massive building housing the dozens of undergraduate chemistry laboratories). You would think that such a big number of inexperienced students working in cramped and poorly ventilated classrooms, handling dangerous chemicals would trigger our common sense and tell us that this is not a good idea. Yet, most people don’t give it a second thought. From my experiences as a chemistry undergraduate, I have seen first-hand how these confined lab classes are some of the most hazardous places you can be in this institution. However, the reason why the chemistry buildings are still standing is because safety and the proper use of chemicals is of great concern, and the staff in Koffler are constantly refining and adjusting to ensure the safety for everyone involved in the laboratories.

With thousands of students taking chemistry classes, and ultimately having to take laboratory classes, the hazards and dangers of chemicals and solvents are often disregarded. Concentrated acids and bases, flammable liquids, irritating solids, sharps, and fragile glassware are all part of the many harmful materials that are used by thousands of students every day. Of the few laboratory classes I have taken, the organic chemistry lab classes have definitely been the most dangerous and the most wasteful classes in terms of the chemicals and equipment. Not only are the organic labs dangerous because of the hazardous chemicals, but also the addition of a large volume of inexperienced students trying to carry out organic reactions within 3-5 hours makes it even worse. For instance, in the span of one lab session (3-5 hours), liters of volatile solvents are used and dumped in buckets, unknown solids/materials are scattered throughout the benches and placed into trash cans, and used glassware is often forgotten throughout the room (in hoods, on benchtops, in trashcans, and crushed under the feet of the students). Now take this terrible image of a classroom and multiply it by the number of lab sessions that happen in a single day; not to mention how many times this is happening throughout a semester. It is quite frightening to think about the magnitude of waste and improper use of chemicals that happens within one university Chemistry department. Imagine the numbers when you combine every similar institution throughout the world.

On a more reassuring side, there are also many professionals that put in much time and effort to make the world of chemistry (and science as a whole) a much safer and greener experience for both the people involved and our environment. From detailed research efforts to simple tasks of proper disposal, there are a myriad of practices that are available to us to help create a healthier and greener community. Much like what we believe here in GREEN, there are things we can all do to lower the magnitude of damage that we create to our world, all the while still holding and creating great scientific achievements. As we develop new techniques, products, and technologies, the amount of waste and harmful materials is slowly dropping to a new, and ultimately greener level; creating a new basis of scientific study. This change for a safer community and healthier lifestyle begins right here and right now, with proper education and with a greener student.

Outreach Coordinator