Chemistry lab safety: Is the teacher at fault or am I overreacting?
December 26, 2011 1:31 PM   Subscribe

Chemistry lab safety: Is the teacher at fault or am I overreacting?

On the third day of my high school chemistry class (at a public school in the state of Georgia), Mrs. B decided to demonstrate how HCl vaporizes. She had us crowd around the vapor hood, then took a gallon jug of the stuff and uncapped it in front of (not quite inside) the hood for a few seconds. She capped it and then turned on the hood as we went back to our seats. My seat is only a few feet from the vapor hood, and after a few seconds I felt light-headed, as if I had inhaled laughing gas. I went to the opposite side of the classroom and recovered in a few seconds. When I told Mrs. B. she said this was normal and I'd be fine. My lungs felt itchy the rest of the day.

A month or so later we did a lab that involved dissolving 0.5g copper in 5-6mL of concentrated nitric acid in the hood, adding 75-100 mL water, adding 30mL of 3M NaOH, heating the solution outside of the hood, decanting, adding 15mL of 6M sulfuric acid, adding 2g of zinc powder, washing the copper solid and rinsing it with acetone. I left the classroom before starting because I heard someone say that one of the groups had done the first step outside of the vapor hood.

There are about 20-25 students in the class. We work in groups of 2-3 for labs with equipment that seems substandard to me (for example, many of the bunsen burners and gas faucets do not work). The room is small enough that I feel very crowded during labs.

Mrs. B told us she technically wasn't allowed to have a mercury-containing solution, which she used to do the Old Nassau reaction. I don't know how she disposed of the chemicals.

When I go to chemistry class, even if there aren't any chemicals out, I often feel sick. I might have some kind of phobia because my fear centers mainly on inhaling fumes and hurting my lungs, not on my eyes or skin.

What can I do next semester? Does it seem like I'm overreacting? Isn't the equipment supposed to be evaluated every once in a while? Would it be overkill to report the teacher (and to whom?)?
posted by gray17 to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Are you the only one feeling symptoms in these situations?
posted by fatbird at 1:35 PM on December 26, 2011

Pay attention to your body, but also pay attention to your mind. HCl fumes don't make you light-headed, they make your wet parts (eyes, nose, throat, lungs) burn. If they're strong enough to make you light-headed, you'd be in serious pain long before that.
posted by introp at 1:39 PM on December 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

HCl, you'll know if it is hurting you. It burns when you breathe it. It will burn your skin as well. It should be in a hood, especially if you're in a classroom setting. However, if you talk to just about any scientist in the chemistry-biology spectrum, they will have used it outside of a hood. More than a few times. Many more than a few times.

I'm going to be a bit blunt here: I think your reaction, at least to the HCl, is not physiological.

Non-functioning Bunsen burners are likely poorly adjusted - you have to mess with the air/gas mix to get them going well. Non-functioning gas taps are par for the course - as long as they're not leaking, you're a happy lab rat.

Did your teacher give you a good safety talk at the beginning of the year? there are good online resources for chem lab safety. Also, remember that the "fire diamond" warning symbol (health, flammability, reactivity, on a handy 0-4 scale) can give you information about chemicals - but take it with a grain of salt. Some of the warnings are more relevant to someone using huge amounts of the chemical, not a couple of grams.

Here's part of the MSDS for salt:
"Appearance: colorless or white. Caution! May cause eye and skin irritation. May cause respiratory tract irritation.
Target Organs: No data found.

Potential Health Effects
Eye: May cause eye irritation.
Skin: May cause skin irritation.
Ingestion: Ingestion of large amounts may cause gastrointestinal irritation. Ingestion of large amounts may cause nausea and vomiting, rigidity or convulsions. Continued exposure can produce coma, dehydration, and internal organ congestion.
Inhalation: May cause respiratory tract irritation.
Chronic: No information found. "
posted by sciencegeek at 1:48 PM on December 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've breathed in a lot more HCl than I should have, in my life, and it's never made me light-headed -- especially if she used a not particularly concentrated version of it, it's probably in your head. You are much more likely to hurt your skin or eyes than your lungs in a lab.

I think you're a little paranoid about the lab, and so you are responding to things that are not actually issues. I'd suggest looking up the MSDS for the things you are working with to see if they are volatile, and what kind of effect they have on people.
posted by jeather at 1:49 PM on December 26, 2011

Having been in charge of a lab for many years, this kind of question always makes me furious, and not for the reasons you think.

It makes me mad that you even have to ask this question. Everyone who handles hazardous material should know what the safety requirements are, what the signs are, what to do if there is a problem, how to properly dispose of their materials. At all times.

Your labs should be starting with a brief on the MSDS for the chemicals to be used, the safety precautions you will follow, the actions you will take if something bad happens. The instructor should be stressing to you that ANYONE can speak up if they have a safety concern and will not be made fun of or brushed off. That way there are 20-25 people in the room that can watch out for safety issues and back each other up.

Specifically, I've gotten whiffs of acids and stuff by accident, and you'll be fine. Labs smell funny. There's likely a mental component (I'm not saying 100% mental) to your feeling sick in the lab.

But the actual WTF is that you don't have the information to know that and have to be afraid in your lab. You should also feel 100% comfortable asking your instructor these things and not have to resort to AskMe.

Next semester, you should not allow yourself to have nagging safety questions. If you even think something might be kind of shady, ASK. Your instructor should be able to put your mind at rest so you can focus on the work.
posted by ctmf at 1:50 PM on December 26, 2011 [16 favorites]

As someone who has inhaled several varieties of acid vapors, I can tell you that not a one has made me light headed and they have all burnt tremendously (as others have written). Afterward the continuing feeling was one of burning, not itching. Lightheadedness occurred as a secondary reaction in one case because I coughed enough to significantly deprive myself of oxygen.

As someone with an anxiety disorder, I can relate to your feelings (which, admittedly, may blind me to more exotic alternatives). Your feeling of claustrophobia in the lab in conjunction with the symptom of lightheadedness and your symptoms in spite of any apparent chemical exposure seems to point to anxiety.

It does seem like you are overreacting a bit and yes, I think it would be overreacting to report your instructor. Safety equipment should indeed undergo routine checks, and in my experience most professionals are happy to speak about these processes in detail.

Your course of action ought to be to contact your instructor outside of class (such that there is sufficient time for a detailed conversation) and address your concerns (noting the lack of likelihood of having actually been exposed to acid vapors) and how it is hard to put these concerns from mind (also, what ctmf says above). If the conversation is unsatisfactory, consider contacting whatever counseling services are available on your campus and with them start a discussion of how to proceed given the lack of safety you feel in that context.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 2:22 PM on December 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I left the classroom before starting because I heard someone say that one of the groups had done the first step outside of the vapor hood.

I had my mind made up by this point. You're overreacting, and rationalizing your anxiety based on little bits of information that, when scrutinized, don't really add up to anything. The fact that your first instinct when you overheard this detail was to basically get up and leave without exploring further makes me wonder whether you have problems with the class in general and are unconsciously looking for excuses to get out of it.
posted by hermitosis at 2:33 PM on December 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also if you're really concerned about the equipment, how about talking with the teachers in this department and the student government about lobbying to the school district for better supplies?
posted by hermitosis at 2:38 PM on December 26, 2011

Throughout my life, I have often thought various situations were killing me (my hypochondriac past), and one of the first symptoms I used to point to was feeling dizzy and lightheaded. Nowadays I am certain that 99% of the time, this is actually anxiety. When I recognize it as anxiety and tell myself to calm down, it goes away within minutes. I don't mean to be rude at all since you should definitely be on guard for safety concerns, but it is good to know when something is seriously wrong and when you might be having anxiety symptoms. :)

Also, if you're "unconsciously looking for excuses to get out of" the class, this could be because you have a phobia of chemicals, rather than some shady desire to skip out of fourth period or something. Try to read all provided safety materials thoroughly and ask questions when you feel nervous, and if you feel dizzy or lightheaded, ask yourself if you feel anxious too.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:02 PM on December 26, 2011

For the circumstances, I do think that you overreacted. However, there is no reason that you should not go to your chemistry or future lab teacher and ask to have the safety procedures explained to you so that you can feel more comfortable. You have no cause, really, to report the teacher - you don't know that you are enduring unsafe conditions and your symptoms and assumptions do not support your being threatened. But you have every right to speak with your teachers about being concerned and have those concerns allayed via their demonstrating that things have been tested and that your safety is not compromised. That should be your first step.
posted by sm1tten at 3:08 PM on December 26, 2011

I'm voting for psychosomatic, sorry. Back in the day I certainly did similar experiments outside of a vapor hood, including with the multimolar acids and the mixing and the running and the exploding and the crying when the monkeys stole the glasses off my head. In fact, I never used a vapor hood in HS and in college (CHEM1A style) except for a demonstration or maybe two.
posted by rhizome at 3:22 PM on December 26, 2011

Indeed, a wide variety of pulmonary irritants, including phosgene and ozone, are known to induce rapid, shallow breathing in a wide variety of laboratory animals and in humans during normal air breathing. ...

not at all surprisingly, as a strategy to limit exposure as much a possible; and shallow breathing can lead to light-headedness-- so I would say your response is probably primarily physiological rather than psychological.

Your teacher is a fool, and is likely to pay a high personal price for her foolishness in the long run.

But you shouldn't have to, and I would encourage you to drop that class and take your chemistry from someone more competent and careful.
posted by jamjam at 3:46 PM on December 26, 2011

Others in this thread have covered that there wasn't any real danger to your health pretty well, but that you're even asking us does say a hell of a lot about the health of your classroom environment. HCl isn't really that bad, but its bad enough, instructors having students handle things like zinc powder and concentrated acids and bases should never ever have a student who doesn't understand their hazards or is unsure about their own safety. Ever.

Please have a conversation with your teacher where you tell them that you felt unsafe and unsure about the lab, if they react poorly then ask your parents to report the fuck out of them.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:12 PM on December 26, 2011

I've gotten whiffs of HCl and it's a more medicinal version of getting a lungfull of CO2.

I'm not saying this to diminish your feelings, because I know they are real. But I think you are letting your fears and feelings cloud your judgement.
posted by gjc at 7:14 PM on December 26, 2011

Sorry, but you give absolutely no tangible evidence that backs up any safety concerns. You say the equipment "seems" substandard to you....but honestly, you're a HS chem lab - what level equipment are you expecting? Of course, your equipment may indeed be poor, but again, you've actually given no details that actually support this. A class of 23 students is actually pretty small - my college classes would shove 27 of us in a labroom. If you're truly concerned about this, talk to your parents and encourage them to vote in ways that provide the school enough money to equip the lab - after all, your chem teacher cannot update equipment if she has no funds.

Based on your descriptions - feeling symptoms that are no consistent with chemical exposure, leaving the classroom, and wanting to report the teacher to higher-ups, the only thing that seems clear is that you have something against this teacher/class and are trying to get her in trouble. If this is the case, seriously, just study hard and get through the year.

Again, this may not be the case, but it's all I have based on the actual details you've given.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 7:54 PM on December 26, 2011

Furthermore, you seem to be making a lot of assumptions and you should talk to your teacher about them -

"many of the...gas faucets do not work" is it that they actually don't work? Ours were turned off many times between certain labs to prevent trouble-makers or fidgeters from switching them on.

"I don't know how she disposed of the chemicals." Then maybe you should...I dunno, ask? Many schools have chemical pick-ups for the really nasty things - she may have stored them in a prep room/waste closet until should could arrange a pick-up. Then again, she could be awful and have poured it down the drain, but it really seems you are making assumptions.

"Isn't the equipment supposed to be evaluated every once in a while?" It depends on the equipment. If it's a bunsen burner, a quick visual inspection before use - by whoever is using it (i.e. you) - should show if the wires are intact and it's okay. If it's not, it's tossed out, but there's not a weekly/monthly inspection or whatever. Fume hoods are usually examined with regularity and there are usually inspection dates on the fume hoods (like in elevators). Have you looked for these? If they are not present, have you asked your teacher if there's a sheet she has?

Again, before you go to the higher-ups, if you are TRULY concerned (and not just looking for a way to get the instructor in trouble) actually *ask* your questions instead of making assumptions as to what the answers are. If there are actual problems they need to be fixed, but if you cause a ruckus over nothing this will actually waste your teacher's time (as she has to meet with the Principal and show all the documents, etc.), and waste the amount of time should could be spending to improve the lab - so your actions could actually be counter-productive.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 8:06 PM on December 26, 2011

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