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.)