Lab Explosion at Boston College

June 25th, 2011


There was a “small blast” in the Merkert Chemistry Center on the campus of Boston College today.  From the Boston Globe / Associated Press:

BOSTON—A Boston College doctoral student suffered minor injuries at a lab Saturday when a chemical used in making mustard gas and methamphetamine exploded in her hand, a school spokesman said.

Oh my God!  She might have been making mustard gas and meth?!  That’s crazy!

No, she was just using thionyl chloride.

Ugh.  Way to go, media.  How come your stories never start:

CHESTNUT HILL—A Boston College doctoral student suffered minor injuries at a lab Saturday when a chemical used in the synthesis and discovery of drugs to fight ghastly human diseases exploded in her hand, a school spokesman said.

Even though the student all but certainly wasn’t up to nefarious activity, it appears that her actions were not above reproach.  The accident was discovered by labmates after the student left the scene and went home without telling anyone.  If the “blast” wasn’t a big deal and didn’t hurt her significantly, she should have taken care of cleaning it up.  If she was hurt, she should have reported it and sought treatment.

The story says she received cuts to her face and minor burns on her hands.  If true, it probably wasn’t a good idea to leave campus and drive herself home.

(H/T to the Speedster at Harvard)

Updates / Other Thoughts

The Boston Herald has a story and, it appears, a photo of the injured student

The comment threads for these stories are depressing.  Many readers are expressing serious concern that this was a meth lab or that she was making nerve agents.  Relax, people.  Thionyl chloride is used all the time by synthetic organic chemists to add chlorine atoms to their molecules.   These students are probably in training to spend their lives trying to discover pharmaceuticals for the treatment of disease.  They’re not bad people, but minor accidents do happen (on rare occasion).

The Boston CBS affilitate is reporting the name of the student as Hee Yeon Cho.  She won an ACS Organic Divison Fellowship in 2010.  Relax, everyone…the Scott and Morken groups are not meth labs.

A labmate writes on Facebook:

This was such a disaster on so many levels… It’s been one hell of a day. Why she left we still have no idea but walking into a lab with glass, blood, a demolished hood and a missing person this morning was enough for me

There’s a video from WBZ.  And another from WCVB.  These videos make it clear that her flight from the scene really exacerbated the situation.

Also, everyone is saying a “beaker” exploded.  I can’t imagine it was actually a beaker.

24 Responses to “Lab Explosion at Boston College”

  1. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    This is like saying that a student who was performing experiments on inclined planes was “using principles used in designing missiles and nuclear weapons”.

    On a related note, I once playfully dumped some thionyl chloride in the sink and was asked to leave the lab. Irresponsible, I know, but it was college so I felt awesome.

  2. agiantamongmolecules Says:

    A guy in my lab blew himself up a little loading sodium into a THF still and no one accused us of making meth. I feel a little snubbed.

  3. Facepalm Says:

    While I agree that the media did a horrid job by over-sensationalizing this, that grad student is f-ing braindead and should be disciplined severely.

  4. pretentiouselement Says:

    I wish that doesn’t happen to me ever. This should remind us that everyone is at the mercy of the reactive molecules we handle. So plan well your reactions and react well your plans.

  5. Doh Says:

    Even if not badly injured, the shock of an explosion may cause a student to act irrationally – ie leave without tidying up. The real criminal here is the lax health and safety laws that allowed the student to carry out experimental work alone in the lab.

  6. Christopher R Lee Says:

    This sort of affair concerns human actions and reactions. The last one I saw was about someone sabotaging a colleagues experiments, where no-one mentioned that the perpetrator might have been mentally ill.

    If you provoke an accident you might be in some kind of shock state, particularly if you feel guilty of making a mistake (though everyone makes mistakes). When this happens, no-one of a normal disposition acts rationally; I would have thought that escape would be the normal irrational action in these circumstances.

    The worst aspect is that a minor local lab accident (that could, admittedly, have turned out badly) went round the world, with all sorts of unreasonable things being said about the person and scientific activity concerned.t

  7. anon Says:

    just goes to show – you shouldn’t work on weekends.

  8. Vinnie Says:

    Bizarre decisions but the fact is that at my university and, I’m guessing, many similar research institutions, safety training is a joke. This includes handling of specific chemicals and protocols to follow in the event of a serious accident. Safety in academia is a joke.

  9. Boston College student injured in lab explosion | The Safety Zone Says:

    […] A Boston College graduate student reportedly suffered minor injuries Saturday morning when whatever she was working on blew up. Key points culled from news reports over the weekend, plus ChemBark: […]

  10. You're Pfizered Says:

    The comments in that Boston Herald article are pure gold. It went from ignorant to bitchy (about the cut-and-paste of thionyl chloride’s Wiki page) to racist.

    As for the comments about being in lab alone. Yes, probably not a good idea, but most of us as graduate students probably did it more than once. It’s the price of admission, unfortunately.

  11. CR Says:


    I understand and agree with your (and many others) complaints about safety training. However, in this particular incident, common sense takes over and not some 1/2 day training that someone would go to. This is very unfortunate, but this comes down to the individual – not the advisor sitting down and holding someon’s hand telling them how to use SOCl2. There is so much information available to anyone in the lab – if you have a question, do some research, ask someone for help.


    Yes, the comments were comical. What would we do without internet comment sections for humor?

  12. anon Says:

    I knew someone who used thionyl chloride at BC all the time. It only took Amir yelling about the stench once to remind the rest of us to clean up after ourselves. He’s getting lax in his old age, huh?

  13. CR Says:

    Or maybe this was part of his meth/mustard gas factory?

  14. RC Says:

    @Facepalm, CR

    I find your comments on “handholding” and individualism offensive. They describe the exactly cavalier attitudes that allow these accidents to keep happening. What if she lost an eye in the explosion, would you still expect her to behave with “common sense”.

    Also, common sense tends not to be all that “common.” This is why training exists. A example is a simple fire. A 4×4 foot solvent fire would cause the vast majority of grad students pull the alarm and evacuate, yet in many industrial jobs (i.e. mining, etc.), workers are taught through hands-on training to extinguish considerably larger fires. Familiarity and training extinguish panic.

    In addition, people are given training on who to call in case of disaster, and one of the first things an effective training regime does is train a person that if they are hurt or in shock, they are absolutely not allowed to deal with the incident alone except in the most extreme circumstance. A person in shock is absolutely incapable of making intelligent decisions in a dangerous environment, regardless of how much “common sense” they have. The way I see it, the problems is the same as at most academic labs: No training, no one nearby to call if you are in trouble, and working alone.

    Besides, many industries working with many different hazards have developed effective training and safety protocols to vastly reduce injuries (e.g. pharma, pulp and paper), otherwise we would still be living in the 1910’s – where common sense was probably more prevalent. However, other industries (e.g. american slaughterhouses, and truck driving), have done the opposite, and still have horrendous workplace injury and mortality rates. This alone demonstrates the importance of well trained/educated employees, and employers who give a damn about health and safety.

  15. CR Says:


    Offensive or not, there has to be some individual culpability in every accident. Did the researcher lose an eye? No. If you are working in a lab it is up to YOU the individual to know the issues with what you are working with and how to deal with issues that may arise. Yes, safety training is lax and should be addressed, but in this case, the researcher was at fault for leaving the scene.

    Back at you – rather than the researcher losing an eye; how about a first responder being seriously injured because the researcher didn’t stick around to let them know what was being used? If the individual cannot handle the situation then they should not be in the lab alone.

  16. bromine Says:

    The sad thing is, university safety courses are wholly inadequate.

    An hour long powerpoint can’t possibly handle all of the multitude of hazards in a chemical lab. Each and every compound and reagent demands its own safety precautions — there are just too many, and most people won’t use every common reagent during their tenure. It comes down to doing your bookwork. An hour in the library (or MSDS, or just common sense) saves a week in the hospital. For example, obviously with thionyl chloride it decomposes into gases when mixed with water (or acid, or alcohol). Thus, you should not use it in a sealed container unless it is designed to withstand pressure.

    Perhaps people in graduate school need to shift from thinking of themselves as a pair of hands, or machines to do whatever experiments their advisor tells them to do as quickly as possible, to actual scientists and stop and think about what they are about to do, or what chemicals they are about to mix. It would prevent many accidents with little cost.

    Just my 0.02.

  17. CR Says:


    Industry safety training is not sufficient to cover each and every compound and every situation. My 1/2 day fire training by putting out a barrel fire does not put me in a position to handle a chemical fire. Nor does my 1/2 – full day training or computerized training modules prepare to handle situations that might arise. However, there are two things that every chemist and every lab should do (and something that isn’t done in an academic setting). 1. The entire culture must be committed to working safely. As you point out there is no way to know everything, but it’s very easy to use the proper protection and take necessary precautions. 2. The individual MUST be committed to his/her own personal safety. This does not mean accidents will not happen; but they must be ready in case of an emergency and must be able to assess their situation before fleeing the scene.

  18. wolfie Says:

    I have experienced major lab accidents at all universities where I had the luck to serve. In almost all cases, the reasons seemed to be

    a) Grave neglection of basic safety rules by the personnel involved


    b) Incorrrect behaviour or decision by personnel put under pressure by ambitious professors or by whomelse.

    Directly, I have only seen one unfortunate, or may be ambitious person at the University of Freiburg apparently set under pressure by an old-fashioned professor, who thought that he had to work alone in a lab at 11 in the night, while rotating off the solvent of an azide preparation. At a certain concentration, the flask blew off, and he lost seven of his ten fingers. Now, he has a permanent position in the institute’s administration. Corrrect me, someone, please, if I am only telling tales or anecdotes.

  19. Paul Says:

    I’m floored…a substantive, on-topic comment from Wolfie.

  20. Physchim62 Says:

    Never, ever, ever do practical work alone in the lab. Paperwork, reading that’s fine, but nothing so hazardous that it involves working in a fume hood. That is the most basic safety precaution of an academic lab, and yet it is regularly flaunted by grad students.

    Their supervisors turn a blind eye to it because they think it will get them (the supervisors) more results and so more papers. Pure self-interest, without a thought for the welfare of their subordinates. The line supervisors of this grad student should be severely disciplined. If students are caught working alone in their labs again, they (the supervisors) should be sacked. There are fifty well-trained chemists for every academic post, we should not pretend that the current holders are somehow irreplaceable.

  21. burkescottwilliams Says:

    Most disturbingly, my very early comment at the Boston Herald which was critical of the reporting and which pointed out the inaccuracy of the thionyl chloride description was removed. Apparently, being critical of shoddy reporting is a violation of the Herald’s policies. And at a newspaper of all places.

  22. ChemBark » Blog Archive » The 2011 Chemmy Award Winners, Part 1 of 2 Says:

    […] acid explosion at Maryland was certainly a chemistry accident, but it did not measure up to what transpired at Boston College last summer. It was at BC that a grad student injured herself in a minor […]

  23. B Clancy Says:

    This grad student has set herself up for all these questions. Maybe it was embarrassment, that such a mistake happened at her level of education, but mistakes do happen, and one usually learns a great deal. Hopefully this will promote such a learning curb. yet PLEASE PLEASE – COVER YOUR BACK. Even if you think you look stupid, that it shouldn’t of occurred etc, yet via not being upfront, your now dealing with the making of nerve agents or methamphetamine, which is ridiculous. Purely synthesizing SOCl2 is a long way from making such a reagent, but thats what you get when you disappear and not respond appropriately. I wish you luck with this, and in short, just be honest about what happened, and why you did a runner.

  24. Alexis Says:

    Because you are always tkilang about MIT just like that you are a part of their community it is good though but MIT, Yale, Harvard and eve Rice Unversity are not they way that they express themslves on the web pages and they are not easy . and to Lord Sharlune if wanna point at someone I am not afraid that I say no one so I tell you, Yes! I exist not because I go to Harvard because Harvard is made of people like me!!

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