Lab “Accident”: Rhodamine Dye Spill

February 22nd, 2007

When you go to Harvard, there are many things that you come to enjoy: the quality of the research facilities, the amount of money that flows into the department, the rigor of the courses, and the intelligence and motivation of most of your coworkers. The problem is that “most” does not equal “all”—there are plenty of people here who are just plain asshats.

Take, for instance, the big news in our lab last week. Someone spilled a massive amount of a pink dye in one of our instrument rooms, and it didn’t take long before it was being tracked all over the place. The dye, probably a derivative of rhodamine, was somewhat soluble in water and the melted snow on everyone’s shoes exacerbated the problem. I can’t do the development of this story justice, so let me show you clippings from the ten or so e-mails sent to our students-only list over the course of a couple of hours:

Admin: ***Please DO NOT ENTER the AFM room without first drying the soles of your shoes. Bring paper towels, or something appropriate to clean the soles of your shoes before you *leave* the room as well. Shoe covers would be the best bet, once you’ve dried your shoes before entering…It is frankly beyond my ability to understand how whomever did this could be so abusive of our facilities, especially in one of the more expensively equipped rooms on the entire campus. Accidents happen. Ignoring, and thereby perpetuating and extending them, absolutely should not. Ever.

Lab Safety Officer #1: As safety officers for the lab, LSO #2 and #1 need to know the identity of the pink dye that spilled in the AFM/ITC room. We suspect that it is Rhodamine due to its solvatochromism in methanol (and that it was probably *not* Ru-bipy); however, we absolutely have to know what it was for the sake of all our safety and for reporting the spill to the department…Please send LSO #2 and/or LSO #1 an e-mail detailing what happened if you know anything about it. We promise to keep your identity and this information confidential.

Admin: LSO #1, our safety officer, has been working with Department Safety Officer #1 regarding the dye spill in our AFM room. It now appears the prime suspect is rhodamine; not ruthenium. We still do not know for sure, but the concensus opinion remains that we are not facing toxicity issues. However, DSO #1 wishes to be appropriately cautious, so Triumvirate will be here this evening to do a professional cleaning of the AFM room. Meanwhile, it will be off limits to all personnel. I regret any inconvenience. LSO #1 is now reviewing the MSDS for rhodamine with FAS safety people, and with LSO #2 will complete any necessary documentation related to the spill. It is not clear to me at this point how much effort will be (or ought to be) expended to precisely identify the spilled compound.

Department Safety Officer #1: Dear Admin and Lab Safety Officers, As you know, a rhodamine spill occurred in M2xx (AFM room) on Friday afternoon. It is unknown which specific rhodamine was spilled. Triumvirate was brought in to clean the floor in M2xx and the areas where rhodamine contamination had spread due to foot traffic (hallways, restrooms, lab floors). Upon further investigation, it was discovered that almost all of the surfaces in M2xx are contaminated with rhodamine. This includes benchtops, computers, monitors, and instruments. Random Lab Guy #1 turned off most of the instrumentation, the chairs will be disposed of, and the floor is in the process of being cleaned. Your group should use damp paper towels or cloths to wipe down all surfaces in the room before use of the room continues. A mild soap solution may be more effective for some surfaces. Researchers should wear gloves and eye protection when doing this. Contaminated material should be disposed of in the yellow hazardous waste bags outside of M2xx. These bags can be taped shut, tagged with a hazardous waste label, and placed in your hazardous waste cabinet. It appears as though the contamination was not due to a single incident, but extended use of rhodamine in M2xx. No rhodamine should be used in this room until we work out a Standard Operating Procedure for future use.

I kid you not: professional HAZMAT people came, in bunny suits, to clean up this spill. Thus, because some jackass was a super-slob and would not fess up so that we could be sure what chemical was spilled, the lab is probably going to end up spending thousands of dollars for this clean up. Thanks, jerk.

Here’s a picture of our new pink floor.  Unfortunately, it was taken post clean up and doesn’t really do the mess that much justice. The entire room, which contains over a million dollars worth of equipment, still needs to be wiped down; when you spray Windex on any surface, the liquid quickly turns bright magenta. Anyway, I hope the person who committed the evil deed is cursed with low yields and/or failed fabs.

What are the (obvious) take-home messages?

1. Wear gloves and glasses—you never know what your labmates have done to your workspace.

1a. Major-league asshats are everywhere; no place is immune.

2. Try to be careful and not spill things.

3. Sometimes people spill things. No big deal. When you spill something, clean it up. If the spill is really bad, ask for help.

4. If you walk away from a mess, but a department safety officer later asks what the mess is, speak up. Your dignity is not worth the thousands of dollars it costs to decontaminate a room of unknown hazardous waste. Everyone else knows it was you, anyway. You look like a bigger jerk for continuing to deny it.


Previous Comments

  1. Mitch Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 4:31 am Couldn’t the culprit be caught pink-footedly?Mitch
  2. Michael G Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 4:53 am Why does the person in the first email use “whomever”? I don’t see a preposition making this necessary. Obviously they wanted to look clever but fell at the first hurdle.
  3. European Chemist Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 4:56 am This ALWAYS happens in every place I’ve been to. Someone makes a mistake. Then they simply ignore it and make the whole department pay for it. They will NOT speak up and they will surely deny the whole thing whenever possible. Clear jackasses.I think Mitch has a point. :-D
  4. GaChemist Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 7:54 am We had a similar situation where a lab member made an egregious NMR policy violation (I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it messed up the probe severely) and wouldn’t fess up. Apparently he hadn’t signed the logbook, but the NMR director knew which group the offending person was from based on the login information from the computer. Somehow he was identified after many irritated e-mails from that group’s advisor to the entire group. He is no longer at this university.
  5. Jordan Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 9:00 am Fine if the rhodamine was spilled, but how did every surface in the room get contaminated? It’s not like it’s a vapour.
  6. joel Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 9:16 am I suggest you use soft lithography to find the culprit. This is surely a job for replica molding is it not?
  7. Hap Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 10:27 am 5) No, but it’s a really fine powder – we did a lab in undergrad with solns. of R6G in ethanol/glycerol and it gets everywhere. We mixed the solutions in lab, and took them at the appropriate time to the laser lab. Maybe the dyes should be mixed elsewhere instead of with the expensive equipment. Of course, this also means that everyone is likely to have pink feet, which means it’s hard to find the culprit.I guess I’m surprised at the admin’s indignant response – not that he/she shouldn’t be indignant, but that he/she fails to understand how someone could be so cavalier. Recto-cranial inversion is not an uncommon disease – in this case, people know that they’re smart, and figure that everything should be forgiven them because of it, or they don’t even think about other people, because the other people don’t really matter. Their dignity matters to them (compromised by admitting to their mistake), while the costs of their mistake fall to others. If you’re all that matters, it isn’t a contest really. I would have figured that potentially wrecking 1M in equipment might make one circumspect. though.
  8. Rob W Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 10:44 am Rhodamine really does get everywhere… I spilled quite literally a few milligrams on my benchtop when I was transferring it, and we saw it everywhere (glassware, benchtop, lab coats, even once in my beautifully recrystallized product) for a few weeks.
  9. milkshake Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 11:07 am Labs typicaly have very high air flow – that’s probaly why the dust got everywhere.We had a moronic zombie-like guy who dropped a bottle of phenacetyl chloride on the floor and was too lazy or dumb to clean it up and neutralize immediately. As a result the whole lab was reeking of phelylacetic acid – which is unbeliavably persistant sickly odor. It smells a bit like artificial honey but more like unwashed clothes reeking of dried urine. The spill was realy affecting social life so people working there had to change their clothes before and after work. The stink lasted about one and half year – handiwork of this one dumbess.
  10. Russ Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 12:31 pm They may have been a bit quick to assume the pink stain was a rhodamine. Blood stains, after being sprayed with phenolphthalein, are also pink of course. Just to be sure, shine a UV lamp on it to see if it glows. If it does, run a PCR and GC/MS on a little swab of the stain. Ideally, these techniques should be carried out by sexy, gun-toting trained professionals, in a dimly lit room. If properly executed, you should know who your culprit is within the hour.
  11. Uncle Al Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 12:42 pm 1)laser dye. If it is everywhere then, as noted, it probably dispersed as the powder.
    2) mild carcinogen
    3) Chlorox (corrosive now and later); gaseous ClO2 (Homeland Severity and anthrax) or ozone (SOP post-fire remediation) fumigation may also destroy the stuff. Test. They say ClO2 doesn’t corrode computer boards and hard drives or explode if properly generated and applied. Test ozone first.Uncle Al once did a Gabriel synthesis with anhydrous sodium saccharine rather than potassium phthalimide (wanted the adduct not the new amine). Despite punctilious precautions it very obviously got loose. Organikers ingest everything opened in the lab.
  12. mike Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 12:57 pm Similar incidence in my high school with fluorescein. But it happened in a corridor and the stuff was carried into every corner of the school. The clean-up was a pain in the ass for the teachers as the cleaning personell wasn’t trained and the school didn’t want to spend extra money. Walking around with a UV lamp in the dark was really fun at that time.
  13. Darksyde Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 2:14 pm I’m the first person to fess up that I’ve blown up (in?) two dewars in the past three months.
  14. Paul Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 2:23 pm Everyone that day had pink feet, so that wouldn’t really narrow it down. Only a couple of people had pink hands, however. It was noted that one person wasn’t removing/changing his gloves, although he was never confronted and forced to take them off.And I think the admin has every right to be upset. Everyone in the lab was upset. The culprit probably wasted over 50 man-hours of work and, as noted, will cost the lab thousands of dollars. Tomorrow is the big wipe-down, where even more time will be lost. Not cool.
  15. Hap Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 2:54 pm It makes sense that the admin was upset (an awful lot of money went up in smoke for no good reason – and having spent the money on a party (rather than a cleanup) would have raised everyone’s spirits rather than lowered them). I just figured that HIA disease is often enough seen to be unsurprising.I wonder if the department could start paying the guilty party in red food coloring instead of cash…
  16. Anonymous was a woman Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 5:04 pm Wow, thanks for that walk down memory lane. I do miss my colleagues from the GMW lab. Back in our day, as my colleague pointed out, the clown would have had a bucket of Rhodamine dumped on his or her (woo hoo, gender equality!) desk!
  17. TWYI Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 6:52 pm TWYI says never work in a lab that has communal NMR solvents.A quick run of our CDCl3 revealed an NMR that looked similar to that of a plant steroid.
  18. excimer Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 8:15 pm excimer agrees with TWYI. Communal solvents tend to be trouble. I nearly freaked out because I couldn’t get rid of some THF from this oil that I made once… until I found out that it was the CDCl3 that had the THF, and the oil’s THF, after days of pumping down, had departed long before.
  19. Jordan Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 8:38 pm OK, I didn’t even consider that someone would have been weighing out a powder in the open in an instrument room. I automatically assumed that the culprit had been working with a solution. Worked with a lot of rhodamines, fluoresceins, coumarins and BODIPYs in my time so I know what it’s like.
  20. Asia Minor Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 11:03 pm Well, could be worse. Whoever the culprit is, atleast he didn’t retract 8 papers in 1 year.
  21. J Says:
    February 23rd, 2007 at 9:09 am #20 – Dead horse, man. Dead horse.
  22. Bunsen Honeydew Says:
    February 23rd, 2007 at 9:20 am During my Ph.D. an undergrad placed the dummy tube into the spinner and put the spinner back into the NMR, our one-year-old Varian 400 MHz machine. However, someone, somewhere, in their infinite wisdom and foresight thought it was ok to leave our NMR standards out for people to use as dummy tubes. This student unknowingly put sent a phosphorus NMR standard to its doom. The standard? Phosphoric acid. Bye bye broadband probe. Hello full-time use of the ID probe. (Want to run a tin spectrum? Too bad sucka! Want that HMBC in 3 hours? FUR SHUR!) It was impossible to tell if the student improperly used the depth guage or if the tube just broke because this probe had had a habit of breaking tubes from day 1. She owned up to it and was not in the least bit of trouble. People were not happy about the situation but she didn’t take any serious heat nor did my boss or any of the rest of us in the group for “not properly training her”. I’m not sure if this student knew she had broken the tube but by the time the probe was removed and cleaned it was toast. I give serious kudos to the student for having the chops to say it was her. Granted that the id log narrowed it down significantly (to our group), she still owned up to being the one who used the machine. In the end the faculty had to write a grant proposal to get funds for a new probe but Varian gave us a 50% discount on the new one. Morals of the story: 1) come forward because it’s not going to be as bad as you think. 2) Don’t put a tube into the NMR unless you are sure it won’t destroy the probe if it breaks. 3) Buy Bruker NMRs
  23. Professor Honeydew Says:
    February 23rd, 2007 at 2:05 pm I don’t know if I totally agree with Bunsen Honeydew in comment #22. In my experience the development of community within a chemistry department involves the incorporation of ignorant geniuses who are quite often sociopaths when it comes to community values. These people are tolerated / protected only if they are powerful or well funded (if they are both then graduate student abuse is blindly ignored). The difficulty is when one of these ignorant geniuses become the department head (no one else would take the job) or a facility manager (dominant user of the key instrument). At that point “duck and cover” becomes a basic survival instinct. For all the statements we make about collegiality and community values you only have to look as far as the department coffee pot to see that many of us are users … willing to use the last of the cream, spill the sugar and leave a trail of coffee to our offices. And we expect something different from our students?
  24. Anon Says:
    February 24th, 2007 at 1:38 am So Paul, does George know (or care) about this? The boss’s take on this disaster seems to be missing from your story…And to Asia Minor (#20) – seriously dude, learn to masturbate. It’s pretty much the same as what you’re doing on this blog, but you get that warm and fuzzy feeling when you finish.
  25. Wolfie Says:
    February 24th, 2007 at 8:44 pm Paul, you should as well label all the chemicals you’re using in your lab with a dye that has an extremely high extinction coefficient (just try how long it will take to wipe away all traces everywhere). You would probably see what kind of swine you are all day long in your own lab (the good American, of course, never is). For that reason, in my old days, there was a compulsory lab experiment at the University of Freiburg: people had to make gram quantities of some excessively green dye (forgot the name, sorry), and then clean the lab, everywhere, please. That took of course longer than making the dye, mostly. A most remarkable incident was that the son of a local physics professor was found in the elevator, wringing his hands over his head, yelling “I couldn’t do it”, green everywhere down to the shoulders.
  26. eugene Says:
    February 25th, 2007 at 11:35 am And here I thought that Germans respect cleanliness out of a cultural tradition. Turns out you have to beat it into them. Not too surprising, since I remember seeing one guy being given the beat-down by the private subway security when he forgot to use the garbage can and started to talk back. I thought they were more laid back down south though.
  27. eugene Says:
    February 25th, 2007 at 2:56 pm Well, I guess that was a little mean. Das tut mir sehr leid and all that.
  28. sam Says:
    February 28th, 2007 at 11:41 am This post makes me sick. Fortunately for me, no one in my lab has been so inconsiderate. I find stains on the floor/chairs once in a while and get upset; I couldn’t imagine dealing with a big spill. Especially because I do single-molecule fluorescence samples—a tiny impurity screws everything up!I like TWYI and Excimer’s comments about solvents. Reminds me of the time that I discovered that ethanol and water didn’t mix. Strange, I thought, I seem to remember ethanol and water were miscible. Turns out that someone had poured toluene into a half-full bottle of ethanol—into the original solvent bottle. Wow. That one pissed me off.

    Darksyde, how do you blow up two dewars?!?! Blown in??

  29. sam Says:
    February 28th, 2007 at 12:24 pm oh, wait, it was acetone in the ethanol, not toluene. which is why i didn’t notice until i tried mixing it with water. i thought the ethanol smelled funny, but i had a cold at the time and disregarded it…
  30. Everyday Scientist » sciencey blog roundup, feb 2007 Says:
    February 28th, 2007 at 8:45 pm […] Paul at ChemBark describes his not-so-fun experience with jerks and laser dyes. Makes me feel a little queasy. […]
  31. Wolfie Says:
    February 28th, 2007 at 11:30 pm Eugene, got your irony, quote: “If you walk away from a mess, but a department safety officer later asks what the mess is, speak up.”see, you better don’t do that
  32. anon Says:
    March 5th, 2007 at 11:28 pm #29- if your acetone doesn’t mix with water I think you’ve got bigger problems than a sloppy labmate…
  33. ChemBark » Blog Archive » Quick Hits – 19 March 2007 Says:
    March 19th, 2007 at 1:39 am […] Remember that rhodamine spill in our lab? The bill for the clean up came to a whopping $2436. . […]
  34. Everyday Scientist » what kind of jerk… Says:
    September 6th, 2007 at 5:30 pm […] Well, it’s not nearly as bad as an unreported spill could be (think of this!), but it’s still annoying. I have no idea what this stuff is, and it’s right outside my office door. I’m right next to the NMR facility, so I suspect some jerk dropped their NMR tube and was so distraught—having lost their newly synthesized whatever—to be responsible enough to wipe up their spill with their tear-soaked handkerchief. Jerk […]
  35. Wouter Says:
    November 30th, 2007 at 8:38 am Sam wrote:
    [QUOTE]oh, wait, it was acetone in the ethanol, not toluene.
    which is [/QUOTE]Can’t have been acetone,which is miscible with water in all ratios.


2 Responses to “Lab “Accident”: Rhodamine Dye Spill”

  1. Quick Hits – 19 March 2007 | ChemBark Says:

    […] that rhodamine spill in our lab? The bill for the clean up came to a whopping $2436. […]

  2. wolfie Says:

    In Germany, Universities are not commercial. So noone wipes up for you, not even for €€€.

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