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  • Dale Allen

Chemical Safety Mishaps from the Past

Updated: May 4, 2020

It's amazing how far health and safety has come over the last few decades, especially chemical safety. We still use countless chemical compounds in many industries, and thankfully, there are far less incidents involving chemicals than ever before.

In the past, however, there were many accidents and injuries involving chemicals. The thing is, back then we had no idea how dangerous to human health some of these chemicals really are.

From fumes of toxic compounds to chemical explosions, I want to tell you about a few incidents that happened before we finally got chemical safety right.

Robert Burns Woodward

A chemist named Robert Burns Woodward, who lived from 1917 to 1979, was a big smoker and he would take his habit even into the laboratory with him. Nowadays smoking in a laboratory or anywhere near hazardous chemicals is a big no-no due to the hazards it brings with it.

Think about it. The cigarette itself posed a fire hazard and the fact that Woodward smoked while he was working meant that it was highly likely that his cigarettes were contaminated too, which presents an ingestion hazard.

Now, Woodward was a fantastic chemist and his accomplishments are a big inspiration to many scientists even today, but he's exceptionally lucky that he lived as long as he did.

Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac

Gay-Lussac lived from 1778 to 1850 and had a fascination with a violently reactive metal. Not long after Humphry Davy discovered potassium, Gay-Lussac began to study the metal, attempting to unlock it's secrets.

In 1808 Gay-Lussac was in the lab conducting a new experiment when there was a potassium explosion. The explosion blinded him for a while and his sight never fully returned.

Due to this, Gay-Lussac was forced to wear lenses to correct his vision, but still continued with his experiments on potassium. This lead to another explosion, which ironally his eyes were protected from, by the lenses he had to wear after the first explosion.

Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac was known as a very careful and meticulous chemist, so it just goes to show you that accidents can happen no matter how careful you are.

Robert Bunsen

With the eyes being a very important, and really vulnerable, part of our bodies it's not surprising to hear that not only Gay-Lussac had his eyes damaged because of not wearing eye protection.

Robert Bunsen lived from 1811 to 1899 and was known as something of a risk taker. He's actually quite famous for measuring the water temperatures of geysers in Iceland right before they erupted. In fact, his research into geysers and why they erupt is still the accepted explanation today.

Feeling no fear he would simply climb in, do what he needed to do and climb right back out again.

It might be quite surprising to hear then, that damage that Bunsen suffered to his eyes had nothing to do with his daring dives into the mouths of geysers.

Bunsen spent a lot of his time studying arsenic compounds which turned out to almost be the death of him. He was nearly killed because he inhaled the fumes of an arsenic compound called cacodyl chloride and he permanently lost the use of his right eye when a flask of the same compound exploded right into his face.

The problematic isolation of fluorine

Fluorine is a very dangerous chemical. It is, in fact, the most reactive of any of the elements we have so far discovered, and because of this isolating it was very difficult and was also the cause of more than a few chemical incidents.

Humphry Davy is the name of the man who first attempted to isolate the illusive fluorine. Previously, Davy was known for isolating chlorine through the electrolysis of sodium chloride. Chlorine from chloride.

After thinking through his previous work, he decided that he would probably be able to isolate fluorine through the electrolysis of a similar compound of fluorides.

He attempted to use hydrogen fluoride for the isolation, but ultimately failed. He also suffered badly damaged eyes and fingernails due to the fumes rising from the hydrogen fluoride he was working with daily.

Since Davy, and still before fluorine was actually isolated, there were several deaths in the attempts.

Two brothers, George and Thomas Knox, both suffered severe hydrogen fluoride poisoning from their attempts., Jerome Nickles and Paulin Louyet were also killed by their attempted isolation of the illusive gas.

A little later, a chemist named George Gore caused several large explosions when the fluorine he produced violently reacted.

Fluorine was eventually isolated by a chemist called Henri Moissan in 1886, when he used electrolysis to produce elemental fluorine from a mixture of hydrogen fluoride and potassium hyrdogen fluoride.

Thankfully, at that time, there were new refrigeration techniques becoming available and Moissan had a very clever idea.

To reduce the reactivity of his fluorine he used a newly invented 'freezer' to chill the reaction mixture all the way down to -23ºC. His very clever idea worked perfectly and Moissan was able to successfully isolate and identify fluorine, and saved many lives thereafter.

To recognise his contribution to chemistry, Moissan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1906.

Do you work with chemicals? Are you afraid your workplace may not have implemented all of the correct control measures to ensure your safety during work hours? You can take the new COSHH Risk Assessor Certification™ where I will teach you how to spot the risks and properly control the hazards.

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