There's a new twist on the tragic case of Sheri Sangji, a UCLA student working in the lab of Prof. Patrick Harran who died from burns resulting from her handling of tert-Butyllithium, a notoriously and violently flammable substance which has to be handled with the utmost case. This is a horrific example that reminds us of the perpetual and always potentially fatal dangers lurking in every corner of the lab. Our heart goes out to the Sangji family whose rage, grief and frustration are understandable.
But the issue gets murkier. It seems that criminal charges have now been brought against UCLA and Harran by the Los Angeles district attorney. Harran is going to surrender to the authorities when he comes back from what I am assuming is a holiday vacation.
I feel extremely doubtful that the charges would hold up, but I also think that these kinds of debates are generally conducive to maintaining a healthy safety culture. Something about Jefferson's quote about the price of democracy being eternal vigilance comes to mind. It's clear that the lab in which Sangji was working was found to violate safety standards, but I am sure that's probably the case for several other labs across the country. This does not excuse the lack of standards, but it makes one wonder if focusing on such stories leads to the typical situation where certain "rare events" seem to dictate our feelings and opinions on a more general issue because of their graphic nature and the emphasis that the media puts on them. More on this later.
The other reason the charges may not hold up is that the culpability of the institution and Prof. Harran, if it exists at all, is likely to be very fuzzy. Unfortunately Sangji was not wearing a lab coat, and I am guessing it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to find demonstrable evidence that she had not been told to constantly use this most basic of lab safety measures. In addition she was also wearing a sweater and was syringing out a rather large amount of the inflammable substance, and the prosecution will also have to find evidence that she was not warned against either of those practices. In addition Sangji was considered fairly well-versed in the hazards of chemical experimentation so she was expected to have known about basic lab protocols. None of this is to lay blame at her feet, but only to note that it muddies the legal aspect of the case.
But I think the greater issue deals with the amount of involvement that a professor should have in the safety of his students. I don't know of any faculty member (although I am sure there are a few) who schedules individual sessions with each of his or her students and instructs them in the minutiae of lab safety. Nor does every professor step into lab several times a day looking for every safety violation and I don't think it's realistic to expect them to. I don't know if it's legally required for any professor to specifically warn their students about the danger of handling t-BuLi. At most professors should periodically (but regularly) remind their students about safety standards, loudly denounce blatant violations and then expect senior graduate students and postdocs to enforce standards. If Prof. Harran is indeed guilty of transgressing safety norms, then it seems that the senior students and postdocs in his lab should share this blame even more. I am not saying either of them should, but it's hard for me to see how the responsibility for safety violations should fall squarely on the shoulders of Prof. Harran and not on his lab personnel.
Coming back to the highlighting of the issue as an indictment of lab safety, I am reminded of the always controversial issue of safety in the nuclear industry. We have constantly lived in times when the graphic, the dramatic and the most sensationalized events have dictated our opinions, no matter how rare they are. In case of the nuclear industry for instance, the occasional Chernobyl and Fukushima color our opinions of nuclear power for decades, even if thousands of nuclear reactors have been humming along for decades without major incidents. The safety record in the nuclear industry is way better than that in the chemical, coal or automobile industries, yet the nuclear industry gets an outrageous share of our derision and disapproval. The result? The distinct censure and under-utilization of nuclear power which has held its widespread deployment back for decades.
An undue focus on the perils of chemical research may similarly detract from the decades of productive chemical research and the education of promising chemists that has largely transpired without incident. I fear that bringing charges against UCLA and Prof. Harran will set a troubling precedent and may result in similar under-utilization of the benefits of chemical education. For instance I can see professors at other institutions holding back and being more reluctant to let undergraduates or technical assistants indulge in research involving common but potentially dangerous chemicals. We are already seeing the consequences of a disproportionate preoccupation with chemical safety in the lack of interesting experiments in chemistry sets for teenagers (presumably because most interesting experiments involve dangerous chemicals). Students themselves might be less eager to burnish their research credentials by working in a chemistry lab. Universities may enforce stricter rules restricting the availability of research opportunities for undergraduates on the grounds that they may lead to potential accidents.
Finally, the undue emphasis on safety and the resulting media circus may simply make worse what has been a perpetual headache for the proponents of chemistry - the public image of the discipline. The media has always been adept at exploiting a version of availability bias, a phenomenon delineated by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in which our perceptions of a phenomenon are shaped by what's easily remembered rather than what's the norm. One can be assured that the media will be far more eager to write about the occasional chemical tragedy than the countless number of times when the system actually worked and nobody was harmed. The Sangji case and the current charges against UCLA will do nothing to quell public fears about the dangers of chemical research. The public perception of working in a chemical laboratory will relate to what's "newsworthy" (deaths and fires) rather than what the facts are (thousands of safe experiments resulting in no harm). Ironically these dangers have always been there, but the countless number of times when they have caused no harm and in fact have led to great advances has gone unheeded.
Of course, none of this backlash may occur and certainly none of the ensuing discussion implies that we should be lackadaisical in the implementation and review of safety standards. Safety reviews should be second nature to lab personnel irrespective of tragedies like this one. Whenever they can professors should always remind every student under their wing of the ever-present dangers lurking in their laboratory. Senior graduate students and postdocs should consider the enforcing of lab safety their special responsibility since only a palpable safety-conscious culture could lead to an unconscious regard for safety. And universities should spare no effort in carrying out regular safety assessments.
But none of this should distract us from the very real benefits that chemical research and education have brought to countless young researchers whose time in the lab has inspired them to contribute to the advancement of chemical knowledge. It should not make us ignore the commendable tradition of chemical research in which professors and their students have carried out safe and illuminating chemical experiments in the presence of thousands of potentially fatal chemicals. Yes, students in labs are surrounded by chemical perils. But so are most of us in virtually every sphere of life. In the face of risks we do what we have always done, assess the dangers and constantly review, revise and research. And carry on.
What happened to Sheri Sangji was a tragedy, and sadly a preventable one at that. Yet if we overstep our boundaries of response and reaction, Sangji will not be the only victim. The real tragedy will be the discipline of chemistry itself.
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