Field of Science

The wrath of lithium

Mitch alerts us to this extremely tragic story where a UCLA lab assistant has succumbed to burns caused by t-butyl lithium:
A 23 year old female research associate/laboratory technician intended to add an (unknown) aliquot of 1.6 M t-bu-Li (in pentane) to a round bottom flask, placed in a dry ice/acetone bath. She had been employed in the lab for about 3 months. The incident occurred on Dec. 29, during the UCLA holiday shutdown between Christmas and New Years. Researchers are granted permission to work during the shut down for “critical research needs.” There were two post doctoral researchers working in the lab and the adjacent lab, with limited English proficiency.

The principal investigator had trained the employee to slightly pressurize the bottle (an ~ 250 ml Aldrich Sure Seal container) with Argon and withdraw the desired aliquot using a 60 ml syringe, fitted with a 20 gauge needle. The PI likes to use these particular syringes because they have a tight seal. There is no evidence that the employee used this method. Speculation: she may have just tried to pull up the aliquot in the syringe. Somehow, the syringe plunger popped out or was pulled out of the syringe barrel, splashing the employee with t-bu-Li and pentane. The mixture caught fire, upon contact with air. She was wearing nitrile gloves, safety glasses and synthetic sweater. She was not wearing a lab coat. The fire ignited the gloves and the sweater.

Six feet from the fume hood was an emergency shower. When the employee’s gloves and clothing caught fire, she ran from the area away from the shower. One of the post-docs used his lab coat to smother the flames. 911 was called. UCLA Fire Dept. and emergency medical, Los Angeles City Fire, and Los Angeles County Haz Mat. The EMTs put the employee in the safety shower for gross decon and then transported her to the ER. She’s currently in the Grossman burn unit in Sherman Oaks with second degree burns on her arms and third degree burns on her hands, a total of about 40% of her body. There was very little damage to the lab. Bill has not interviewed the employee.
I find it especially sad that she was doing a relatively routine procedure done in hundreds of labs, and was wearing gloves and safety goggles, even if not a lab coat. This sobering incident should remind us that for all that we jest about laboratory procedures and reagents, working in a lab should be a deadly serious activity. Sometimes the monotony blurs the line between casual protocol and hellishly serious work precautions.


  1. Not wearing synthetic clothing was one of the first things I learned in my chemistry lab. It's like a layer of gas right on your skin.

  2. My condolences to the young woman's family and friends - this is a tragedy.

    There were a few pretty serious lab accidents (no deaths, just immediately necessary hospital ER visits) at my last institution while I was there. I am curious, though, based on the article - what does a "holiday shutdown" entail for UCLA? I've never heard of such a thing at my past institutions or current one. If there were elements of necessary facilities infrastructure not functional, or safety/security precautions diminished, one needs to be sure that "critical research needs" are actually critical and not just because someone wants something nice and tidy to read on his or her desk by the first Monday after New Year's.

  3. I personally have always been conflicted about working in the holidays. Since nobody might be around, this could definitely be a liability. On the other hand I think grad school should be all about freedom and nobody should tell me not to work on a holiday if I want to. Naturally if safety precautions have been diminished, then there should be strict guidelines and warnings. In the end of course you unfortunately bear the responsibility of your actions.

  4. There are certain things which, I think, clearly need to be checked on and/or taken care of regardless of any holiday schedule due to their characteristic maintenance/upkeep schedule. For example, cryogen fills for NMR magnets are either done on time (mostly) or you quench the magnet - that's a "critical research need" for sure. For things like that, it would be hypocritical of me to say that's a bad idea - after all, I've filled magnets on New Year's Eve. And I'm a big fan of getting things done over the holiday interval, especially if it involves having to get some time on a shared resource which is otherwise booked.

    It's hard to say more without additional information, of course. I always try to err on the side of caution and urge others - especially newcomers to the lab - to do so as well.

  5. I have to confess I really like to work on weekends and holidays if I can when it's so much more peaceful around. Of course since most of my chemistry is done on the computer (and some in the NMR tube), it does not matter. But I can see a fellow experimental chemist in my position facing a real dilemma.


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