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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Explained: Why chemistry labs are more vulnerable to fire

This year in June and July, two premier research institutes in Pune – CSIR – National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) and Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) – witnessed fire accidents in their respective organic chemistry laboratories.

Written by Anjali Marar , Edited by Explained Desk | Pune |
Updated: July 27, 2021 7:47:13 am
Smoke emanating from the IISER-Pune building after it caught fire earlier this month. (Photo: Pune Fire Brigade)

This year in June and July, two premier research institutes in Pune — National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) and Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) — witnessed fire accidents in their respective organic chemistry laboratories. What was common among these accidents was the origin of fire – the fume hood. The collective estimated loss at these publicly-funded institutes is expected to run into a few lakh rupees.

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What are the standard safety protocols prescribed for chemistry labs?

* Architecture and design

Firstly, the design of a chemistry lab must allow two-way access for smooth entry and exist, especially in case of emergency. These doors must ideally be located diagonally opposite to one another and at distance equal from all areas of the lab. There must be a refuge area outside or in front of the lab, so that people, upon evacuation, can gather for safety.

* Safety equipment

The lab must be installed with gas sensors to detect gaseous fumes and avert accidents.

High sprinklers and showers must be installed in the lab corners for quick access. Upon suffering burn injuries caused after coming in direct contact with

chemicals or solvents, a high sprinkler sprays water jets over a small area of the victim’s body (a finger or an eye). In case the area of injury is large, a full shower is instead used before further medical aid is supplemented with.

At all times, workable fire-dousing equipment like fire safety alarms, fire extinguishers filled with carbon-di-oxide or foam along with sand-loaded buckets, fire blankets and anti-inflammable lab coats are also placed inside the labs.

Fume hood and its operations are also pertinent in keeping the lab environment safe. Its assembly, position, height and other specifications are decided based on the type of chemicals used and the experiments.

Mandatory wearables for anybody working at a chemistry lab include a cotton apron, preferably impregnated with fire retardants like boric acid or borax, a pair of vinyl or nitrile hand gloves, protective eye goggles, footwear made of non-synthetic and liquid resistant material and having the ability to withstand heavy impact.

* Waste disposal

Appropriate disposal of solid and liquid waste chemicals, including both chlorine and non-chlorine based, is a must.

As per mandate, all liquid waste must be neutralised and brought to an accepted pH level before it is safely transported and handed over to an agency for further safe treatment and full disposal.

In Pune, there is a Maharashtra government-owned plant near Ranjangaon. Here, waste chemicals, sent after neutralisation by institutes and labs, are treated.

* Training and fire audits

In research institutes, like IISERs or NCL, the institutes host a pre-requisite fire safety training during induction for research students. Students are introduced to safety measures and rules, appropriate handling and disposal of chemicals, sensitive reactions, bio and laser-hazards of chemicals and equipment. Every new entrant to these institutes has to clear and qualify the safety exam and submit a safety undertaking.

The labs, through their in-house safety committee, conduct monthly and/or quarterly routine safety checks of all labs.

These inspections cover checks on chemical storage areas, laboratory housekeeping and hygiene, personal protection equipment, leakage in cylinders in the gas banks, operations of electrical and mechanical connections and the working condition of emergency safety equipment.

“Most fire incidents are triggered due to short circuits from electric sparking. It is important that safety measures are inculcated as a habit and it be practiced naturally,” said Prof Arvind Natu, senior scientist at IISER, Pune.

What makes chemistry labs most vulnerable to fires?

The preliminary nature of work involves use of chemical ingredients of varying quantities, concentrations, toxicity and gaseousness making these labs at a higher risk in comparison to a physics, biology or computer lab.

“Incidents involving fire at chemistry labs cannot simply be controlled using water jets,” added Natu.

In case of fire accidents, the risk of flames spreading faster is manifold due to the presence of highly inflammable materials like solvents, reagents, chemicals, gas cylinders and gas pipelines.

It is best advised that the labs undergo regular safety checks. Individual lab heads need to sensitise researchers and students to follow safety protocols at all times. These must include carrying out a pre-audit of equipment, chemicals and reagents stored in the lab.

Samrat Ghosh, senior chemical scientist from IISER, Mohali, suggested some handy tips to be adopted at other chemistry labs and these include:

* 2-propenol, involved in the distillation process for purification, must be subjected to a five-minute peroxide test before use.

* Trimethylsilyl azide (TMS-N3) generates hydrazoic (HN3) acid in contact with moisture, and can lead to explosion when TMS-N3 is subjected to excessive heat.

* Avoid mixing incompatible chemicals, like glycerin and potassium permanganate.

* In high explosive factories, nitroacetonitrile, a versatile precursor, must be handled with caution and experiments should be attempted on a micro-scale due to its highly explosive nature.

* Use of hotplate cum magnetic stirrer, which when left unattended overnight or for long hours, can lead to fire accidents. At times, magnetic stirrer stops, the energetic chemicals like azides segregate, settle on the bottom of the reaction vessel, get overheated and may detonate.

* In case of an oil spill, the rag cloth used to wipe off the oil must be thoroughly washed using detergent and then dried. It must not be disposed-off carelessly in dustbins, as they can occasionally ignite fire.

What are the prescribed steps to be initiated in case of a fire?

Once a fire is detected, everybody inside the laboratory or at the site must vacate the premises immediately. If possible, they must cover their nose with a wet cloth or handkerchief to prevent inhalation of toxic fumes.

Use a hammer, break open the fire alarm and alert neighbours and concerned authorities. If well trained, make use of appropriate fire extinguishers to bring the flames under control and minimise damage till fire dousing experts arrive. Avoid use of elevators or escalators and follow fire exit sign boards and take the safe pathway.

What are some of the most common reasons for fire?

Due to its high and recurring costs, disposal of both solid and liquid chemical wastes are not followed as per guidelines at all labs. Such chemical waste, are on most occasions, simply washed down into drains or wash basins, thereby also causing pollution.

Leaving mobile phones or laptops on charging mode, unattended for long, has led to lithium battery overheating and explosion.

Corrosion of lids or seals of cans or bottles storing chemicals, which leak fumes, make the lab environment prone to spread flames in an accident.

Placement of large gas cylinders filled with oxygen, nitrogen, argon, zenon and others inside laboratories can be risky.

Compromised safety checks and lack of regular fire audits of buildings, scientific equipment and fire fighting devices.

What is the function of a fume hood in a Chemistry lab and why does it often catch fire?

Fume hood is a table-top cabinet structure having a long, vertical duct that is attached to the exhaust of the laboratory or building. It captures all volatile and gaseous fumes emanating during chemical reactions and releases them from inside the lab into the air.

It is the main area where researchers place their apparatus and perform chemical reactions. The fume hood platform is enclosed with a glass shield and has glove-projections made through it, allowing researchers to handle equipment and chemicals.

As this is the main area where all reactions, on many occasions, simultaneous ones take place, it is highly vulnerable to excess heating and fire. Some advanced and mobile fume hoods called safety trunks, which resemble an elephant’s trunk, are also in operations in Indian labs.

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