Lab Explosion in France

March 27th, 2006

This post originally appeared on

C&EN just posted a story on a lab explosion in France that killed a professor and injured a student. There aren’t any details on the cause.

Frankly, I think chemists’ overall safety record is amazingly good. Sure you hear about fires every now and then and everyone knows the Barry Sharpless story, but I can’t remember the last time there was a fatal chemistry accident at a US university.

It’s also been a while since I’ve thought about the lab explosion at NYU that landed me with six hours in surgery and five days in St. Vincent’s Hospital. I was pretty lucky to have made it through the event, but outside of NYU, it certainly wasn’t a big deal. It makes you wonder how many serious but non-fatal accidents happen that we never hear about.

Previous Comments

  1. eugene Says:
    March 27th, 2006 at 11:14 pm Hey, I haven’t heard about the Sharpless explosion, or your explosion. You have to tell us (me) what happened since. That was enough suspense, now more explosion info. Good work on surviving by the way.I only had two fires. One was involving a large scale reaction where I was following a really old German procedure. They are good, but not very descriptive. After that I decided to never follow experimentals word for word and to use my head. That fire was big, but if I didn’t use my hands and shirt to put it out in the first five seconds, it could have been a lot worse. As it is, all I got was a few burns and a yield that was not that bad actually.
  2. Paul Says:
    March 27th, 2006 at 11:48 pm Here’s a link to the Barry Sharpless story, in his own words. My boss, who was a colleague of Sharpless’ at MIT, is incredibly strict about our wearing safety glasses in the lab, even if we are twenty feet from the hood working at a computer.
  3. eugene Says:
    March 28th, 2006 at 12:08 am That sucks. I never knew he was blind in one eye. I’m pretty bad by his standards though. I don’t wear safety goggles at all times in the lab unless I’m teaching or doing stuff that I consider dangerous enough to warrant it. Right… gotta learn. Maybe I need another fire or an explosion that will take out one of my eyes though.I was taught by chemists with poor lab safety skills, and compared to them, I’m very safety oriented. Which isn’t saying much by the way. I just thought it was poor form to never wear safety goggles, not put on gloves when doing butyl lithium reactions, or eat in the lab. Of course, even they would do all of that (and not eat in the lab) when it came time to take out the dreaded OsO4 (or maybe even the KCN).

    Okay, now it’s your explosion turn.

  4. Paul Says:
    March 28th, 2006 at 12:32 am It’s a pretty long story, but here’s the short version (believe it or not, there’s more):We were halfway through our annual lab clean up. There was a diazomethane precursor in a ziplock bag, but it wasn’t labeled properly (we discovered this later). Another undergrad in the lab put it in a waste container and walked away. A short time later, I walked right next to the bottle to quench some old dicyclopropylcarbodiimide. In the process…BOOOOOM….

    The waste bottle, a 4L jug, shattered into hundreds of M&M-sized pieces. The tapered part of the top rocketed into a light fixture on the ceiling and shattered the whole assembly. Some of the glass entered my left arm. Another piece pierced my lab coat and t-shirt then lodged in the skin of my torso. Another piece ricoheted off of the hood sash and pierced my trachea, really close (2 mm or so) to my larynx.

    All I felt was a little pressure around my neck. When I put my hand up to touch it, my glove became covered with blood. Someone pulled the fire alarm, someone called 911, and NYU’s main building emptyed out completely. After a brief ambulance ride to St. Vincent’s, the nurses stripped me nude and hosed me down with high pressure water to “decontaminate” me of chemicals. After some random tests, I was wheeled into surgery and they performed a six hour neck exploration where they cut the front half of my neck wide open and searched for damage and glass.

    There’s more, including being questioned by the FDNY bomb squad, but the best story occurred the next day. For the first two days, the f*ing nurses wouldn’t allow me to get out of bed. Nature called, and I was forced to make use of a bedpan for the only time of in my life. As you might imagine, having to use this contraption severely detracts from the pleasure of the experience. I also had to hide the bedpan under the covers because my room had four large windows that made me visible to everyone in the hallway, and the nurse left before drawing the curtains to the bed. Anyway, whilst in the process of dropping a deuce, guess who walked in:

    a dean of the college
    the director of undergraduate studies of the chem department
    my advisor
    and four guys from my lab

    As far as I know, the dean and dugs never knew or found out what I was doing. I felt compelled to inform the lab guys immediately after the other three left, and I think my advisor found out about it later.

  5. Klug Says:
    March 28th, 2006 at 10:02 am Great googly moogly, that sucks. My d*mbass undergrad (sophomore) refuses to wear his eyewear; I have to keep telling him. Maybe I’ll show him this link.
  6. eugene Says:
    March 28th, 2006 at 11:41 am Wow, that sounds pretty painful. That’s the most impressive lab accident story I’ve ever heard; the ones where you die are not that impressive. It’s better than the Sharpless story.
  7. Paul Says:
    March 28th, 2006 at 1:23 pm For the record, I was wearing my glasses. They got scratched up to the point where they were disposed of, but it was unclear whether they were scratched during the explosion or after I had removed them and tossed them on the floor.
  8. Klug Says:
    March 28th, 2006 at 3:05 pm I figured you were.
  9. shah Says:
    March 29th, 2006 at 6:23 pm hey, i actually never knew that story. that’s quite an ordeal, to say the least.i thought when you said Nature called, that you meant the magazine. haha.
  10. PMP Says:
    March 31st, 2006 at 5:13 pm Diazomethane precursor? Which one? Do you have an idea why it exploded?Thanks for sharing this story – people should really learn from this!
  11. Paul Says:
    April 1st, 2006 at 4:01 am The compound was N,N’-dimethyl-N,N’-dinitrosoterephthalamide. Treat the compound with base, and out pops a couple of equivalents of ready-to-explode diazomethane.The lessons to learn: 1) label compounds properly, especially explosive ones and 2) evacuate your bowels prior to annual lab clean ups.
  12. Jordan Says:
    April 4th, 2006 at 3:03 pm Holy shit. That’s quite the story. Glad you made it out alive.There was a doozy of a fire in a (future) Nobel Laureate’s lab when I was in grad school. One of my classmates was severely burned. After a couple of months she came back to school. She ended up taking the MS and leaving after a few years, though.

One Response to “Lab Explosion in France”

  1. Making Eye Protection Fun | ChemBark Says:

    […] the lab. Before they came into my room to see a few demonstrations, I gave them a quick version of my lab accident story along with the requisite speech on the importance of wearing goggles when in laboratory. With this […]

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