Principle #12 – Safer Chemistry for Accident Prevention

Do you remember taking your first undergraduate lab? What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of your first week in lab? I bet it’s the awful safety video, isn’t it? Yep, we’ve all been there; sitting in the cramped makeshift “lecture” section of the lab, the darkened room making you nod off, and the atrocious ‘90s-era VHS safety video with all the students at the time dressed like Zack Morris. Twenty minutes later you sign a safety agreement and spend the rest of the semester being chastised over safety by your power-hungry TA.

After that, you as a scientists  will go on to research labs and slowly fall out of the good lab practices and  conform to the new lab’s haphazard environment. You’ll lose your goggles and then steal someone else’s pair when you are actually concerned about something blowing up in your face. The lab has a stash of lab coats somewhere around here. And dangerous reactions and reagents are of no concern as long as the work gets done. I know this is quite the blanket statement and I know not all academic labs are this sloppy with their safety practices (and I congratulate those that maintain high standards when many of your peers are not). I’ve seen this poor lab practice  firsthand and the reality is academic labs are much more dangerous than industrial labs. Many industrial labs have Good Lab Practices (GLP) certifications, “banned” solvent and reagents lists, and strict safety practices that could cost you your job if not followed to the letter.

There are a number of reasons why academic labs have poor safety regulations ; investigators and students don’t seem to be concerned much for safety, out-of-date practices and techniques that incorporate century old – and extremely dangerous – reagents and reactions are still practiced in the lab, and shortcuts are made because an academic lab can’t afford the equipment or proper safety protocols for their research. I don’t think I need to remind everyone about some of the unfortunate tragedies in academic labs that have occurred over the last few years. Unfortunately, many of these accidents could have easily been avoided. And as safety measures are being implemented and forced on university laboratories, the necessity for safer practices, reagents and reactions is great.

Believe it or not, there’s a Principle for that! Just as with safety in general, it is on the very bottom of the list. Also, believe it or not, there are changes you can make right now to your lab that would make a huge change to the safety and greenness in your laboratory. Beyond the mandatory requirements for personal protective equipment, we here at GlycoSurf must follow strict GLP guidelines in order to operate. If you don’t know what GLP is, you should look here and measure it against how your lab currently runs. Even if you have no need to go through the process to get certified, following many of these measures is simple and creates a safe and professional environment.

Another measure that GlycoSurf has taken (along with so many other industrial companies) is a “banned solvent”/solvent selection guide. The most recent is the guide put together by Sanofi. It not only lists the solvents banned from use by the company but also gives some suggested alternatives. This should be something implemented by every lab. Period. Eventually these changes will be made in academic labs and your lab will suffer if not prepared. One type of solvent I previously  used all the time was chlorinated solvents. Now they are gone from my lab and replaced by safer alternatives that I can recycle and reuse, which not only eliminates waste but also chlorinated waste. Another advantage of switching over to an alternative solvent, is that many have higher boiling points; making them less volatile when recovering them and lowers the toxic fumes hanging in the lab.

Additionally, only mild conditions with mild reagents should be used. Just because you read it in the “Named Reactions” textbook doesn’t mean that reaction is the only way to synthesize your desired product. Eliminating the use of highly toxic, flammable and hygroscopic reagents in the lab is crucial. Dangerous compounds like tert-butyl lithium are banned from the GlycoSurf lab. Also overly reactive and dangerous acids, bases, oxidizers, and reducers are banned from the lab. Along with that, stills for distilling solvents like tetrahydrofuran (THF) are banned (well actually, THF is banned from the lab anyway). There are safer ways of distilling solvents that don’t require highly reactive and flammable materials. Chlorinated solvents and THF; some of the most widely used solvents in Organic Chemistry are banned from most industrial labs and they are all doing fine without them.

Is this a big jump to implement into your lab? Sure, it is. But down here at GREEN, you know that we promote the “greening” philosophy. Change one thing now, change another in a couple weeks, change another in a month. These things take time, especially in an established lab with established research. Make this change not only for the reason that these changes may be forced on you in the near future, but because this is a true prevention of potential accidents and it’s the green thing to do. Once you do make some changes, you’ll be wondering why you hadn’t made these changes sooner.