Saturday, November 9, 2013

Two College Kids Messing Around in a Morgue - Ruh Roh!

As young adults you, me, we all did dumb stuff from time to time...

Like the time a friend and I went down steep-steep Cotton Tail Road on our skateboards with no helmets or safety gear and crashed hard resulting in many inches of road rash and near concussions.  My head bleeding, my forearms looking like chop-meat, I then proceeded to drive us both home stopping at a convenience store for a soda.  The store owner nearly called the police on us.  Ah - those were the days.

You would think that working in a clinical laboratory, safety is a main concern and for the most part that is true.  But, when the manager tells two young lab assistants to dump some old chemicals down the sink, well mayhem can and will ensue.   This is the tale of what happens when critical thinking skills are not applied to a situation and great danger can overcome the festivities.

The word "old" is just a useless adjective when attached to the word "chemicals".  Chemicals in pure form should always be handled with a clear head and proper protective equipment.  Old chemicals can diminish in reactivity but still remain quite concentrated and active enough to cause bodily harm, damage, and other dangerous risks.

And so the story begins with a request from the lab manager of his young minions; "Take these boxes of old chemicals and dump them down the morgue sink - But be careful.  See photo below taken by Photographer Brandon Merkel of the laboratory morgue some 20+ years later.  We were working part time in a mental health facility laboratory with over 100 years of history.  Some of the chemicals were real old. But, you see we were educated, college trained, young, and rather invincible in our own minds.  So this was going to be an easy work day Right?
Photograph by Brandon Merkelbrandonmerkel

Well nothing was farther from reality.  I agreed to take the first few hours and my cohort would take over after I left for the day.  I proceeded to sort jars of chemicals by my own self starting relevance by recognition.  If I recognized the name of the chemical I opened the jar and poured it into the drain followed by copious amounts of water.  For the most part I was OK.  I had gloves, lab coat, and goggles covering my eyes.  Luckily, I was only working a 4 hour shift.  One chemical at a time followed by water, I was having good luck.  I was careful not to mix the chemicals together in the drain.  On and on it went.  No incident and no drama for me. Then it was time to leave for the day to attend my evening college classes.  My cohort took over.  He thought he was invincible too.  Unfortunately, he was not.  Critical thinking was not present in his work.  Instead of dumping - rinsing - waiting - repeat; his work flow was more streamlined.  He Opened several jars randomly grabbed out of the box, poured into the sink, after a scary amount of chemical was present water was added to rinse down the drain.  Well, under such a routine it was only a matter of time before disaster was at hand.  Several chemicals mixed together producing a cloud of dangerous noxious vapors which overcame my cohorts senses and eventually his faculties.  When he fell to the floor luckily he knocked down a box of chemicals and made enough of a ruckus that other laboratory staff heard and came to investigate what happened.  They pulled my cohort to outside air, opened doors and windows to release a eye tearing, breath stealing vapor cloud from the morgue.  My poor cohort almost bought it in the most ironic of places - right next to the morgue table.  What a disaster.  My cohort was alright though a temporary leave of absence was in order for the poor kid.  He was lucky that day.  So what have we learned?  Chemicals are dangerous.  Mishandling them is deadly.

As laboratorians working with various chemicals on a daily basis we are trained how to properly handle chemicals, how to mix them, and how to dispose of them whether in pure or aged state or post use.  This is all very good to know. But what about at home? Should we be concerned about household chemicals present in our living spaces?  The answer is an emphatic YES.

Here is a brief list of do's and don'ts for chemicals around the house.

Keep chemicals in original containers.
Date opened chemicals so you can keep track of their age, use, and reactivity.
Do not mix chemicals together.
Follow "How To Use" instructions directly on the label without deviation.
Discard empty containers.  Do not use empties for storing or preparing other chemicals.
Acquire MSDS forms for the cleaning chemicals you have in your home from the manufacturer; for example SC Johnson. SC Johnson MSDS Library
If you purchase concentrated cleaners and mix with water also purchase generic non-labeled application containers or sprayer bottles for such use.  Mark the container with exactly what is contained and at what concentration.  Date the container with the date of preparation.  In the event of an accident with the chemicals, a spill, or splash in the eyes it is important to know what exactly the chemical compound is.
In the event that a child has exposure to the chemicals, it is critical to know and be able to calmly tell
poison control what chemical and at what concentration the exposure happened with.

Mix different chemicals together - Cleaning a toilet bowl then spraying the seat with a chlorine based cleaner can result in deadly vapor production.  In the enclosed confines of a small bathroom you could wind up on the floor in trouble.  Some chemical compounds are heavy and thus hover the floor so your head on the floor is a bad place to be!
Use old containers for preparing new cleaning solutions.  They are not properly labeled and the initial mix  of solutions may not work as expected or may be dangerous to handle.  An exposure at some later time may lead to erroneous information given to poison control in an emergency resulting in further harm or death to the affected individual.

Never: Mix chlorine based chemicals with ammonia based cleaners.  This is a recipe for quick
illness and death.
Never: Mix drain cleaners with anything other than water.  Use rubber gloves when handling drain cleaners, oven cleaners, or anything labeled as "Caustic".

The most dangerous chemical compounds you can purchase without special permits is by far caustic drain cleaners and concrete scrubbers (Acids). Absolutely, Do Not mix these together and it is against the law to use these products in a way deviated from intended use as per the product labels.

Don't be stupid my friends - use your critical thinking skills.  Chemistry is wonderful when used properly.
Please click through links below to important information concerning the safe handling of chemicals in the home...
Chemical Safety Improvement Act
American Assoc of Poison Control Centers
National Capitol Poison Center
US Chem Safety Board
Guide to Chemical Hazards

Brandon Merkel is a photographer on Long Island NY.  Permission was granted by Mr. Merkel to use the morgue picture above.  The picture was taken some 20+ years after this story took place in
Sept. 1981.  The morgue autopsy table is shown slightly out of original position and plumbing fixtures are missing in the photograph.  The 16 square doors oriented floor to ceiling are the morgue refrigerator.  I observed an autopsy in this morgue room.  This room was located in Building 23, Pilgrim Psychiatric Center, Brentwood, NY.  The predominance of the ground floor was clinical laboratory which I worked as lab assistant for 6 months until Jan. 1982. There are multiple pictures to be found on the internet taken in this morgue but show the condition of the refrigerator in various stages of disarray and destruction.

Scott R. Mayorga A.A.S., BS MT(ASCP)H CLS

No comments:

ShareThis Post!