Archive for Monday, February 15, 1993


February 15, 1993


Safety procedures for handling dangerous substances in Kansas University labs need to be reviewed in response to chemical spills last week that twice forced evacuation of campus buildings, KU officials said today.

"We do need to gather, discuss and review the entire business," said Howard Mossberg, vice chancellor for research, graduate studies and public service at KU.

Robert Bearse, associate vice chancellor for research, graduate studies and public service, said there had been an unnerving increase in chemical accidents in recent years.

"Clearly, we're not going to hang anybody, but this is the third similar incident in about two years. Something is wrong. We didn't have these problems four years ago," Bearse said.

On Saturday morning, KU graduate student David Goldhammer of Lawrence spilled a highly flammable component of paint thinner, xylene, in a Nichols Hall lab. The four-story aerospace engineering building was evacuated and closed for two hours.

GOLDHAMMER SAID the xylene spilled when the bottom fell out of a glass jug, and fumes filled the room and a hallway. He was treated at Lawrence Memorial Hospital after experiencing dizziness and difficulty in breathing.

Bearse said the incident involving Goldhammer was an "accident in the true sense of the word." Goldhammer called 911 and apparently responded properly, Bearse said.

"I don't think anybody did something stupid," Bearse said.

Bearse said that wasn't the case Wednesday when the spread of fumes resulted in the evacuation of five KU buildings. The point of origin of the fumes was Malott Hall, he said.

"We suspect somebody did something they shouldn't have done in Malott," he said. "We've not figured out what exactly happened. The chemistry department thinks it's zeroing in on it."

Mike Russell, environmental health and safety officer at KU, said the most likely explanation was that a mercaptan compound, often added to odorless gases to give them a detectable smell, was poured down a Malott drain by someone not sufficiently trained to handle it.

MOSSBERG SAID less than a gallon of the compound was released from Malott, but that was enough to cause a major disruption on campus. More than 100 firefighters and law enforcement officials responded to the incident.

"I wonder how many thousands of student class hours were missed," Bearse. "Of course, faculty couldn't work. We lost three hours per person minimum."

Mossberg said safety training for students was conducted within each academic department. All graduate students in the chemical sciences are exposed to information on the safe handling of volatile substances, he said.

The review of safety procedures may or may not result in changes in university policy, he said.

"I don't have any specific policies or actions in mind, but it's evident we ought to at least discuss it," Mossberg said.

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