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Fields & Applications Chemical

When Experiments Go Wrong

In February 2017, a PhD student at the University of Bristol in the UK was conducting a routine experiment. An unanticipated reaction created triacetone triperoxide – a highly explosive substance – and the emergency services were called to carry out a controlled explosion. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the incident highlights how easy it is to unintentionally create a hazardous chemical or unwanted reaction, particularly in a research institution.

A chemical reaction doesn’t have to create an explosion to be hazardous. Depending on the scale of the reaction, reagents can violently interact to shatter glassware, spew forth toxic gases or burst into flame. There are numerous books, databases and other resources available that outline reagent safety information, but what would be more beneficial is a searchable, freely available database on unintended reaction incidents and near-misses. Such practical information does exist of course – but it’s often locked in internal silos, where it is difficult to find and share even within a company, much less across organizations (nobody likes to admit when an experiment has gone horribly wrong...).

As the life sciences industry relies on experimentation to develop new products, there is no way to eliminate risks entirely. However, the same negative incidents should never happen twice. Researchers need access to previously reported dangers. To this end, The Pistoia Alliance has recently developed the Chemical Safety Library Service. The service allows the research community to submit, store and share hazardous chemical reaction information.

Depending on the scale of the reaction, reagents can violently interact to shatter glassware, spew forth toxic gases or burst into flame.

The library has been seeded by members of The Pistoia Alliance, with a number of incidents from their archives. Members can add and share their chemistry reaction-related incidents and learnings – and the content is free to download and integrate for use with internal informatics systems, such as electronic lab notebooks or inventory systems. These systems can also be configured to alert scientists if there is a potential known safety risk before they carry out an experiment.

Since the majority of safety information falls in the precompetitive arena, sharing this kind of experience should be straightforward. Moreover, in cases that do involve proprietary components, the Chemical Safety Library offers a function to convey these important safety learnings without revealing company intellectual property.

The Pistoia Alliance is a global not-for-profit organization that intends to help lower the barriers to innovation in life sciences R&D – and one of our key focuses is collaboration. Our library service could help increase laboratory safety, but we need the life sciences community to embrace this effort.

Following the launch of the Chemical Safety Library Service in March 2017, requests for access have been overwhelming. The positive response shows just how much the industry is looking for such a resource. But looking is not enough! Ultimately, the more data the Chemical Safety Library contains, the more useful it becomes to the entire industry. We need companies to move beyond their reticence to share and to add data on hazardous chemical reactions. The process only takes a few minutes. Safety is everyone’s concern and now every researcher can embrace the responsibility and do something constructive about it.

For more information, visit www.pistoiaalliance.org/projects/chemical-safety-library/

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About the Author
Carmen Nitsche

Carmen Nitsche is a Business Development Consultant at The Pistoia Alliance, USA.

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