Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

The safety dance

Derek Lowe‘s blog entries in the “”">Things I Won’t Work With" category

– the explosion at the National Institution of Higher Learning in Chemistry at Mulhouse (which killed chemistry professor Dominique Burget)

Karen Wetterhahn’s tragic death in 1997

Chemistry just seems more dangerous than other scientific disciplines…

In the June 1st issue of Nature, Mark Peplow and Emma Marris investigated whether or not chemistry deserves its “reckless reputation.” They talked with a number of safety officers from several universities, many of whom think that the dangers of chemistry are a bit exaggerated:

“A lot of it is reminiscence to ‘the good old days’ of chemistry,” says Alan Kendall, safety officer at the University of Oxford, UK.

“There’s a public perception that is years behind the reality,” agrees Richard Firn, a biologist who chairs the laboratory safety committee at the University of York, UK. “Things have changed a lot in the past 10 to 15 years” … “People’s risk perception is skewed by the drama of an explosion” …

But Mark and Emma acknowledged that it was “surprisingly difficult to get national statistics on scientific accidents … [the UK Health and Safety Executive], for example, groups all its accident figures for schools, colleges and universities into a single number, making it difficult to discern safety trends or to tell if one type of lab is more risky than another.”


Joshua Finkelstein (Associate Editor, Nature)


  1. Report this comment

    Uncle Al said:

    Pretty nickel complex ions are rather labile with only ammonia. So we try it with chelating hydrazine and get initial deep blue flocks that break to pale pink Ni(NH2-NH2)3(NO3)2. Nice undergrad experiment.

    The dry product detonates at 7 km/sec if confined. Use a larger sample vial.

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    Catherine Goodman said:

    One reason I think it’s hard to quantify how dangerous chemistry is: the most common accident I’ve witnessed (or unfortunately taken part in) is getting cut by broken glassware. While this happens more often in chemistry labs, since a lot of bio labs use glassware sparingly, it’s not a true “chemistry” accident. Also, with the exception of serious injuries, these problems aren’t reported, except maybe via increased purchases of bandages. So, more dangerous on a day-to-day level? Probably. But, I’d take glass cuts over some of the crazy stuff biologists work with any day…

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    Revathi Bacsa said:

    While it is understandable that people associate chemistry with explosions (thanks to movies and some real life incidents) it was utterly amazing to see ordinary folk in France demonstrating against funding nanotechnology for fear of being taken over by nanorobots. Considering the quality of the leadership these days, who knows, robots may actually perform better.