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Laboratory Safety

    Many people think chemical experiments are too dangerous to conduct at home. But if you use common sense and take necessary precautions, you can prevent most accidents or at least minimize their danger if they do occur. Here are some guidelines that should be followed:

Wear protective clothing. You need to buy a good pair of rubber work gloves and safety goggles to use whenever handling corrosive and/or toxic materials. Most people know enough to do this when working with acids or strong bases, but they forget that many non-corrosive reagents are toxic and can be absorbed through the skin. You should also get a lab apron and remember to wear old clothes when conducting experiments.

Work near a source of running water. Should anything spill onto your skin, you should rinse it off immediately, and this is hard to do if the nearest sink is several rooms away.

Have adequate ventilation. Fume hoods are expensive and hard to install, so try to set up your equipment near a window ventilated by an exhaust fan. (Remember to adjust the fan so that it's blowing air out!) However, if you are determined to do work with materials that generate lots of vapors, set up outside on the back porch. The open sky is still the best fume hood.

Always work with small quantities. This helps minimize any undesirable consequences that may arise. The amount of chlorine gas produced by oxidizing 3ml of concentrated hydrochloric acid is still dangerous, but much easier to handle than the amount you will get if you oxidize 300ml of hydrochloric acid.

Know your materials. Buy some second-hand chemistry texts and read them thoroughly before starting to experiment. You should always know in advance if the materials you are going to work with are potentially explosive or flammable and under what conditions; if they generate dangerous fumes, either by themselves or when combined with other things; if they are toxic, and by what route they effect the metabolism; and what to do should an accident happen. Always thoroughly read labels and follow storage, handling, and disposal instructions. Material Safety Data Sheets are available on the Internet, and can be accessed by clicking on the MSDS link at the bottom of this page.

Mix chemicals slowly, small amounts at a time. When combining reagents, never quickly dump things together! Some reactions are extremely exothermic (they generate lots of heat) and can spatter if initiated too rapidly. For example, always slowly add acid to water, not water to acid, in order to avoid spattering.

Use extreme caution when heating substances. Always heat reagents slowly. Reactions speed up dramatically when heated, and a chemical geyser can erupt out of an overly heated flask. Having your ceiling, your walls, and yourself saturated with boiling corrosive substances is no fun.

Use extreme caution when igniting gasses. Some of the older texts might advise you to try to light certain fumes to see if they'll combust. My advice is: skip these experiments! If you must ignite gasses, follow the textbook's instructions scrupulously. And wear those goggles! Some frightening explosions can occur when trying to ignite hydrogen gas in order to generate water.

Set up experiments carefully and in advance. Have everything you are going to need easily available, including any materials and equipment that are necessary to clean up or treat accidents. Work slowly and think about what you are doing. A hurried lab procedure is a dangerous lab procedure.

Always store chemicals out of reach of children and pets. Kids are always curious about chemistry, and pets can knock things down and cause nasty spills. Worse, they can eat things. If the chemicals you are working with are safe to store (and some are not, so read those texts and labels!) keep them out of reach, preferably in locked cabinets.

Even the most careful chemists sometimes have accidents. But if you know about the materials you are working with, wear the proper safety gear, and prepare for accidents in advance, then the danger can be minimized.

Many people ask me why I would be crazy enough to set up a laboratory in my basement. I respond by asking them if they use a methane gas stove in their kitchens. Or keep a can of gasoline or ether-based starting fluid in their garages. Do they store benzene-based paint strippers and acetone paintbrush cleaners in their basements? Do they have flammable 91% isopropyl alcohol and poisonous tincture of iodine in their medicine cabinets? Do they keep sodium acid sulfate in their bathrooms to clean their toilet bowls? And how about sulfuric and hydrochloric acid drain openers or that omnipresent can of lye in the cabinet under the sink? That's the stuff that usually sits beside the bottles of Clorox and liquid ammonia that inevitably get stored together, like murderous partners, in kitchens or laundry rooms. When you stop to think about it, most people already have laboratories stocked with basic chemicals in their homes. They just don't know it! At least I know where my lab is, and can tell you all about everything that's in it!

Go here for a good MSDS database
This has lots of safety information that will help you learn all about the chemicals with which you plan on working.
Just type in the name of the substance you're researching, and the Cornell Database will look it up for you.

More helpful safety data
From Oxford

Background photo by Maarten Huizinga, showing his own laboratory equipment.
Photo used with Mr. Huizinga's kind permission. Visit his website here.