Saturday, February 18, 2012

Are You Scared Yet?**

Sensationalist journalism pervades our society. Usually, investigators focus their attention on stores, local government, unions, and the like. But chemistry labs...are they terrorist plots waiting to happen? Lucky for us, ChemBark to the rescue! His post Friday (click over there to see the video in all its scandal-filled and melodramatic musical glory) alerts the chemical community to a pressing National Security emergency: unlocked research labs in otherwise nondescript academic buildings.

To reiterate Paul's main point: yes, the labs in question should not have been so easy to access. Most of the academic labs I've worked in have had key card / ID fob access built into the doors, and critical facilities (storerooms, NMR, clean rooms) behind keypad-locked doors, or good old-fashioned metal lock and key.

Cogent arguments aside, the piece fails on just about every level for meaningful chemistry communication. Here's a random sampling of quotes from the story:

0:10 "...just the right chemicals to make a bomb?"
Well, most bombs require high explosives, like nitroglycerin or TNT. As most readers of this blog realize, materials such as iodine or hydrazine - unlike the dilute HCl or ethyl ether featured in the news spot - can actually be used to make bombs, and are under strict DOT and DHS purchase regulations.

0:53 - What's with the gunshots? Since when did that have anything to do with organic chemistry labs?

1:16 - "Compounds that could potentially be used in terrorist attacks"
While (potentially) true, you're more likely to find allyl alcohol in drug leads, and acrylonitrile in superglue!

A real-live chemical storeroom (not caught on tape, sadly)
Credit: University of Delaware / Fisher Scientific
1:20 - Oh no, duck and cover, that scientist is using a Karl Fischer apparatus!

1:35 - "...inside this glass case..."  Did you mean a fume hood, perchance? ...which improves lab safety?

2:43 - "...chemistry lab and storeroom." Have these people ever seen a chemical storeroom?

2:50 - "...cabinets, some unlocked, labeled ACIDS and FLAMMABLES."
Were the researchers supposed to just store them in plain gray cabinets? I would argue that the labels increase safety. Also, if they were allegedly "unlocked," why is there no camera shot of a cabinet door hanging open?

3:05 - "...large nitrogen tanks..." If the announcer knew that he was referring to liquid nitrogen, he'd be doubly afraid!

3:54 - "...hydrochloric acid, a highly corrosive chemical that can burn skin to the bone"
This bottle reminds me of the 1.0N HCl shown earlier (1:29).  If anyone's wondering, the pH of 1N HCl is 0.1, which, while enough to give you some decent skin irritation, won't char you on contact. I see no concentrated HCl anywhere, and even that's no TFA or triflic acid.

4:07 - "...ethyl ether, a highly flammable solvent that could cause respiratory problems!"
Or knock you out for surgery, like in the olden days at the MGH Ether Dome.

6:01 - "schools must list their chemicals of interest, but only if those chemicals exceed a certain amount"
This sounds an awful lot like "the dose makes the poison." (i.e., it's terribly tough to mount a terrorist attack with 25 g of magnesium sulfate...)

**Just for those keeping score at home, I counted 26 mentions of the word "chemical" (or once every 14.4 seconds). Always preceded by a sensationalist adjective like "dangerous," "deadly," "interest," "maim," or "flammable." 


  1. Worrying about chemistry labs makes little sense unless the availability of natural gas, oxygen tanks, propane, etc. is restricted first. Terrorists could make a much bigger bang with a fuel-air explosion or pressurized fuel-oxygen bomb. Actually, they don't even need a bomb - they could probably paralyze North America by leaving totally harmless but suspicious-looking packages in a half dozen key locations, particularly if they contain white powder or a piece of uranium ore. Security can't work - as the saying goes, the emperor has no clothes. Of course, terrorists are just as incompetent as security.
    (A challenge for readers - figure out how to defuse a pressurized fuel-oxygen bomb.)

  2. @gippgig - Agreed. As commenters from both ChemBark and MetaFilter are quick to point out, so long as you can still buy fertilizer, car batteries, and strong acids and bases from hardware stores, these remain much bigger threats than under-secure labs.

  3. Answer to the challenge: Freeze it (i.e., with liquid He). When the components condense the pressure will drop to near zero. It can then be opened (to a vacuum or He) and slowly warmed. The components should distill off separately. Done.

  4. I overlooked that all you need to make a bomb is water and electricity. Try limiting the availability of that!

  5. Gippgig, I still would want to be nowhere near. Seen liquid oxygen do its thing a few too many times :)

  6. 'Tis true - I personally knew two (2) individuals in school who had LN2 traps for their high vacs slightly open during a crucial distillation or drying. Anyone want to guess the outcome of that? (hint, liquid oxygen REALLY wants to be gaseous again!)

  7. I'd have thought the pH of 1 M HCl (assuming blah blah) should be zero (10^0 = 1)... 1 M shouldn't be so concentrated that we have to worry about activity coefficients, or that the assumption that it dissociates completely should not hold?

    I was thinking of removing it to some place with wide open spaces... and vent to the atmosphere (preferably separately).

  8. @Andrew - Not that MSDSs are ever wrong, but click that link above, and you'll get your answer in the "physical properties" section. Or, pour a little out in a cup, and dip some litmus paper in, and you'll notice the bright pink color of pH 0-1.

    The point I was trying for is as follows: no one's going to make an explosive device or terror weapon out of this acid. There's traces of iron and copper in our blood, but no one's casting ingots out of people, y'know?

    Best just to close the hood sash, keep an eyewash handy, and lock your lab doors.

  9. I saw the MSDS, thanks. And I don't disagree with your point. Just going off on a tangent.