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Graduate student injured in science lab chemical explosion

Published: September 17, 2010
Section: News


A university PhD student suffered injuries to his face after a chemical explosion in a laboratory inside the Edison-Lecks building. He was then transported to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston last Thursday, a Waltham fire department lieutenant said.

University Senior Vice President of Communications and External Affairs Andrew Gully declined to name the student.

The Waltham Fire Department responded to a “report of an explosion in a laboratory resulting in injury” and a state Hazmat team also arrived on scene to evaluate the safety of the building. After the team determined negative readings on the gas meters, the case was turned over to the university, Lt. Mike Murphy of the Waltham Fire Department said in a phone interview.

The two chemicals involved in the explosion were tetrahydrofuran, a liquid solvent, and calciumhydride, a powder, Murphy said. He added the cause of the explosion was still being investigated.

Murphy said that the Hazmat team is brought in during incidents like this one to ensure the safety of others in the lab as well as fire department personnel before they enter the building.

The student was “purifying a solvent at low temperature in pressure” and because of a seal in the glass instrument, “pure oxygen” entered, Benjy Copper ’11, a lab student familiar with the incident, said in an interview with The Hoot.

“There was no way to prevent it because it was an equipment failure,” Cooper said. “It could have been a lot worse than it was.”

The explosion took place in the lab of Professor Christine Thomas (CHEM) and because of the safety precautions in place that day and emphasized during all lab experiments, the injuries were minimized, Cooper said.

Thomas did not respond to requests for comment Thursday afternoon.

“A Chemistry Department inquiry determined that the explosion was caused by an equipment failure,” Gully wrote in a statement. “During a purification process, extremely explosive condensed liquid oxygen came in contact with a solvent because of a leaky seal on a glass flask, triggering the reaction.”

Murphy explained that the fire department checked the availability of medical flight transportation but determined that ground transportation to Mass. General would be sufficient.

The incident was classified as a “box assignment,” according to Murphy, which means that additional companies and ladder trucks had to arrive at the scene.

Both Waltham Fire Department Chief Richard Cardillo and Deputy Chief Roger Hebert arrived on the scene as well.

Gully said that lab students are being told more information about the cause of the explosion so that “they are aware of what happened, and why, and so they can take extra safety precautions.”