On Monday evening, March 29, an organic chemistry lab in the College of Science was evacuated due to a buildup of sulfuric acid fumes. No one was seriously injured.
The class was an evening section of an organic chemistry lab taught by Thomas Mastrangelo. In a routine lab experiment, the 24 enrolled students were heating a mixture of 2-benzoyl benzoic acid and sulfuric acid to convert it to anthraquinone. Under normal conditions, the fume hoods in the lab would provide ventilation, and vapors would be carried away; on this day, however, the hoods were not turned on. Corrosive fumes built up around the work areas and were inhaled by the students.
Ten to fifteen minutes into the experiment, people started coughing. Two stockroom workers passing by the lab noticed the strong smell and ordered the students out of the room. The fume hoods were turned on and everyone went out in the hall to wait.
At this point, the amount of fumes that had accumulated was not yet apparent because the gas was colorless. Many of the students believed that the room would be cleared quickly and they’d be able to complete their experiments. “That happens sometimes, especially with this room. It’s one of the older labs; it’s not one of the retrofitted ones,” explained Nicole Arroyo, a second year Biotechnology major. “People were concerned that the situation might become worse because the experiments were still being heated. And so some of us — actually, I think the majority of the class — went in to make sure that everything was turned off and unplugged … We should not have gone in, but they needed to be turned off.”
After waiting in the hall for another 10 minutes, medics arrived on the scene and ushered the students further away from the lab. Units were present from the Henrietta Fire Department and the Henrietta Volunteer Ambulance; the RIT Ambulance was on another call at the time, but two first responders were sent. Each student had their vital signs taken and were asked about their symptoms.
According to the material safety data sheet (MSDS), inhalation of sulfuric acid produces damaging effects on the mucous membranes and upper respiratory system. Symptoms may include irritation of the nose and throat, labored breathing or even lung edema, a life-threatening condition. People with pre-existing skin disorders, eye problems or impaired respiratory function may be more susceptible to the effects.
All but two of the people in the lab reported mild symptoms, many experiencing headaches and sore throats that lasted three to four hours. The students were all wearing chemical safety goggles, which minimized eye irritation. No students were hospitalized.
After approximately two hours of waiting and filling out paperwork, everyone was cleared to retrieve his or her personal belongings from the lab and go home. The lab returned to normal use the following day, and the students were given an alternate assignment to complete.
“Everything was handled according to procedure,” said Chris Denninger, director of Public Safety. After the accident was called in, help arrived on the scene within minutes; Denninger feels that this quick response time is an example of the system working.
Yelena Bilyaskaya, a fifth year Bioinformatics major who was in the class, agrees. “It was an accident. They happen,” she said. “It makes you realize that it’s not a playroom, you know? We do fairly serious experiments. And granted, we know what the outcomes are, but we take as many precautions as we can and sometimes things go wrong. I think it was handled very well, as best as it could have been.”