Danger in School Labs; August 2010; Scientific American Magazine; by Beryl Lieff Benderly; 2 Page(s)
The day Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji, a 23-year-old technician at the University of California, Los Angeles, undertook what would be her last task, she wore a sweatshirt and no lab coat. That late December afternoon in 2008, she started working with a liquid called t-butyl lithium. The chemical requires careful handling, because as a pyrophoric, it catches fire when exposed to air. But equipment malfunctioned, and the fluid spilled, setting the synthetic fibers of her clothing ablaze. Two postdocs ran to help douse the fire engulfing Sangji, but they failed to get her to the nearby shower. Emergency personnel raced to the scene, but they arrived too late. She spent 18 days in a hospital burn unit before she died.
Sangji’s catastrophe highlights widely unsuspected risks in many schools. “Most academic laboratories are unsafe venues for work or study,” wrote safety expert Neal Langerman in the May/June 2009 Journal of Chemical Health and Safety. He termed the fatality “totally and unquestionably preventable.” Both Patrick Harran, a chemist and director of the U.C.L.A. lab where Sangji worked, and Chancellor Gene Block independently described Sangji’s case as a “tragic accident.” “As we continue to mourn Sheri’s death and grieve for her family, we are determined to rededicate ourselves to ensuring the safety of each and every member of our entire Bruin family,” Block said in a statement. U.C.L.A. and other universities instituted reforms and reportedly reviewed their safety procedures.