Lab Safety 10 Years After Sheri Sangji

C&E News has published an article, 10 years after Sheri Sangji’s death, are academic labs any safer? (Dec. 28, 2018), that is a must-read for all chemists who either go into labs themselves or are responsible for sending others into a lab. The lab accident that took Ms. Sangji’s life was clearly preventable. Nevertheless, the many steps, small and large, that need to be taken to make chemistry labs, especially academic research and training labs, safer remain a work in progress.

An accident is a failure to anticipate hazard and to take all all of the steps needed to keep it from happening. One might say that risk is always present in lab work so what is to be done? But this misses the larger point. The little bits of acid that etched holes in the blue jeans I always wore to lab in graduate school were never going to kill me, but those holes pointed to an uncomfortable fact that eluded me at the time: my daily lab work was exposing me to chemical reagents without my being aware of it. Had the reagents been something more toxic, mutagenic, or reactive, the effects might have been far more unpleasant than damaged clothing.

Those of us who work in the lab, or send others into the lab for research or instruction, have a duty to insist on a universal culture of lab safety that promotes awareness of risk, and creates incentives for lowering all imaginable risks to tolerable levels. Until then, we will either operate in the denial that Ian Tonks describes in “I thought it would never happen to me”, or with that “icy ball of fear” that Debbie Decker (Safety Manager, Dept. of Chemistry, UC Davis) refers to in her companion essay, “How we’re making compliance beneficial”.

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Church of England promises to divest from fossil fuels

Science magazine (13 July 2018) reports (News | In Brief, p. 114) that the Church of England has decided to divest itself from fossil fuel companies. The Church divested itself of £12 million in assets from tar sands and coal projects in 2015, but the next stage will be much larger, about £125 million in shares in large oil and gas companies. The Church’s efforts also include teaming up with the London School of Economics to create the Transition Pathway Initiative, an assessment tool that examines a company’s preparedness for a low carbon economy. Perhaps this would interest the Trustees of Reed College?

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PSU Chemists May Have Unlocked Juul’s Appeal

E-cigarettes are often promoted as a “healthy” alternative to cigarettes (“The Promise of Vaping and the Rise of Juul” New Yorker, 14 May 2018). The public health appeal of this is simple: nicotine is notoriously addictive (even without the flavorings that Juul adds), so vaping is offered as a way for smokers to self-administer nicotine without exposing themselves to tobacco and carcinogens.

If only life were that simple. Nicotine has its own toxicity problems. Juul has become the e-cigarette/addiction of choice among teens who had not been smokers or nicotine addicts previously, and there are very real concerns about Juul being a stepping stone to cigarettes, let alone an addiction that works on teenagers’ still-developing brain networks.

Now a team of chemists at Portland State University (Angela Duell, James Pankow, David Peyton) provides a possible reason why Juul’s brand of nicotine liquid might be unusually appealing and addictive. Juul adds more acid to its liquid to create more protonated nicotine than other brands, and this form of nicotine is more appealing when inhaled. (Background chemistry: The nicotine molecule contains 2 basic nitrogen atoms, and nicotine solutions contain a “free base” form in which both N are electrically neutral, and “protonated” form in which one N remains neutral and the other carries an extra proton as R3NH+.)

Earlier investigations of the free and protonated nicotine in Juul’s liquids had not given reliable results, but the PSU team found a way around this experimental hurdle. Links to the PSU research include: Chem. Res. Toxicol. 2018, DOI: 10.1021/acs.chemrestox.8b00097 | C&ENews, 2018, 96(22), 28 May

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Real News About the Climate

Here are two recent “real news” stories that should make you worried about the self-serving fools in charge of our government, corporations, and just about any other person or institution with a financial incentive to keep things as they are:

“Going Negative: Can carbon dioxide removal save the world?” by Elizabeth Kolbert (The New Yorker, 20 Nov 2017) Kolbert explains why we’re in dire straits (quote #1), why CO2 removal (so-called ‘negative emissions’) looks appealing (quote #2), and why it might not be possible to get there (quotes #3 & #4).

(#1) When the IPCC went looking for ways to hold the temperature increase under two degrees Celsius, it found the math punishing. Global emissions would have to fall rapidly and dramatically – pretty much down to zero by the middle of the century.

(#2) The IPCC considered more than a thousand possible scenarios. Of these, only a hundred and sixteen limit warming to below two degrees, and of these a hundred and eight involve negative emissions.

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Forced From Home exhibit – this week only

Doctors without Borders has mounted a free exhibition, “Forced From Home,” in Pioneer Courthouse Square on the refugee crisis. Hours are 9 am – 5 pm. Days Mon 10/16 (that’s today) through Sun 10/22.

Here’s a brief description of what you will find at the exhibit (more info at

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Are Chemists Ready for Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality (VR), once the province of supercomputer labs, is going mainstream. A few months ago, I strapped on a VR headset in Prof. Joel Franklin’s computer lab so that I could explore multi-hued computer-generated landscapes, some realistic, others purely fanciful. Once “inside,” and edging my way towards a rocky cliff, I had to remind my mind and my body that I was still standing on the flat floor of a college physics lab.

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Unanswered Questions for Geoengineers & Reed College

“The Paris agreement aims to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 to 2C above preindustrial temperature, but achieving this goal requires much higher levels of mitigation than currently planned. [emphasis added]” So begins an editorial, “How to govern geoengineering,” appearing on p. 231 of the 21 July 2017 issue of Science magazine.

The 3 authors, all of whom work at the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance (C2G2) Initiative, describe the two most talked-about versions of “geoengineering” (human actions designed to intentionally change the climate): carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM). Both approaches currently run aground on unsolved technical problems, and, as the authors point out, “geoengineering does not obviate the need for radical reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to zero, combined with adaptation to inevitable climate impacts. [emphasis added]”

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CO2 emissions melting sea ice

Portland temperatures topped 90F on Monday reminding us that summer is, if not yet here officially, right around the corner. And summer brings big questions for climate scientists like, “how much ice will remain in the Arctic when summer is over?”

As these some recent articles make clear, this past winter was a bad one for the Arctic so sea ice is already weakened, and to make things worse, rising CO2 emissions spell even more trouble:

If you don’t have time to read these articles, these quotes from the Cornwall article puts the American lifestyle in perspective,

“The jet fuel you burned on that flight from New York City to London? Say goodbye to 1 square meter of Arctic sea ice. … The average annual carbon emissions from a U.S. family of four would claim nearly 200 square meters of sea ice. Over 3 decades, that family would be responsible for destroying more than an American football field’s worth of ice … Each person in the United States is responsible for the destruction of 10 times as much ice each year as someone in India.”

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People’s Climate March – Portland

Tomorrow’s march is titled “Climate Action Rooted in Justice.” It starts at 12 pm in Dawson Park in NE Portland and winds for over a mile through NE Portland. The park is located between N Williams and N Vancouver adjacent to Legacy Emanuel Hospital.

Getting there:

  • Bike. N Williams is a N-bound bike boulevard that starts at the Rose quarter (N end of Eastbank Esplanade).
  • Bus. Trimet bus #4 takes riders from SE Division to N Williams & N Morris. 30 min ride.

For more details go this link. A statement from the organizers:  Continue reading

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Climate says, “Science is not a hoax!”

There are those (Trump, Tillerson, Pruitt, …) who pretend that the scientific evidence on changes in global climate is a hoax, but we know better. Science has the facts. Those deny the science are guided by one overriding concern: sticking to business as usual so that they can line their pockets. (The Rockefeller Family Fund vs. Exxon, Kaiser & Wasserman, NY Review of Books, 8 Dec 2016).

Well, guess what? Science is taking to the streets in the next few days. Come join us! Science is not a hoax.

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