Friday, March 13, 2009

Syringe Cringe

I had a most unexpected mishap in the lab today. Gas chromatography, a method used by chemists to analyze the purity or relative makeup of substances (among other things) is not something I generally consider fraught with hazards. You can burn yourself touching the wrong side of the machine, since it has a built in oven, but generally I see no reason for any more caution than say- watching a movie on your computer while sewing a button onto a jacket. The sewing part has to do with the fact that using this particular (and common) gas chromatograph involves injecting a sample with a long thin needle past a rubber barrier.

No I did not inject myself with the needle. I'd have to be a complete yutz for that. Actually what happened was a little more surprising, and I'm sure I'm just lucky this hasn't happened before. For the non-chemists out there, a gas chromatograph uses helium as a carrier (I'm going to try to explain chromatography in a later post) and the injection site has some positive pressure. Normally I don't give this a second thought, in fact, it never occurred to me. So instead of injecting the substance right away, I left the syringe in while I found my pen to make a quick note. When I turn back to the syringe, the positive pressure pushed out the plunger and sprayed me in the face with foul liquid. I'm extremely grateful my mouth wasn't open at the time. Even thought the syringe only holds a few microliters (1 milliliter is 1000 microliters), the stuff was atomized quite nicely and was made of pure nasty. The stuff positively reeks, and getting hit square in the nose was- in a word, unpleasant. This is the first time I've had to wash my face in a lab. The smell itself was all sorts of sticky-sweet, flowery wretchedness.

I don't know what exactly was in the sample, before you ask, at least I haven't got around to it yet. It's malodorous nature screams "ester", though. My misery did get a little company though. I called over one of the TA's to help me out, because the machine wasn't cooperating, and she loaded the syringe up with acetone for a test run- only to have the exact same thing happen to her. Acetone is a lot less nasty though and evaporates virtually instantly. I'm just glad I'm an undergrad and they don't trust us with anything really nasty yet. (Well, if by glad, I mean slightly disappointed.)


  1. I'm just glad I'm an undergrad and they don't trust us with anything really nasty yet.

    Not always true. As a freshman I'm pretty sure my eggs got scrambled with ethidium bromide, and not too far thereafter we did a lab with BuLi (can definitely hurt you if you don't know what you're doing) and a few Stille couplings (tin is pretty neurotoxic).

  2. simple question. Why did you have your face there? Most GCs are set-up so that on a typical benchtop the injector port is somewhere around mid0chest level. I doubt you are four and a half feet tall, so were you bending over to watch it?

    Normally, you use gloves and a labcoat if you are dealing with noxious or toxic things, even in an academic setting this ought to be required.

  3. The GCs are hooked into computers and if standing, the injection port is actually below chest level. However, I was seated- not standing. By relative comparison, the port was about the same height as the top of the computer screen. So sitting on a stool was part of the problem. I was decked out in all the requisite gear but only a hockey mask would have helped in this case. Of course, the goggles probably did and I'm taking them for granted.

    Normally work is done under the hood, but these were small samples, like I said, it was only a few microliters, albeit a rather potent few microliters.

  4. Oh, and I forgot to mention, the TA that got sprayed too? She is about four and a half feet tall.

  5. What did it smell like?

    I've smelled some Carboxylic-Acid compounds that smelled nasssssttaaaayyyy.... (Butyric Acid, anyone? ew. Putric Acid?)

    I've had mostly positive experiences with esters, but that's probably because the organic synthesis lab we did was making stuff like banana oil and orange oil. :)

    Glad you're alright though. I bet that's scary!


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