Acid fume leak prompts science building evacuation

Sulfuric acid fumes forced the evacuation of Science Building 1 for over an hour last Thursday. Two people required onsite medical treatment and one was taken to the hospital.

The technician, who was alone in the lab, was examined at OHSU and released Thursday night, said Yangdong Pan, the associate professor of environmental science in charge of the research work. Two campus public safety officers who investigated were also irritated by the fumes, said Chuck Cooper, Facilities’ environmental health and safety consultant.

“Sulfuric acid can be quite irritating even at low levels,” he said. He recommended that the lab technician see a doctor “just to be checked out.”

In the routine experiment, a ventilating hood removes fumes from the boiling acid.

“For some reason, the hood didn’t draw properly,” Cooper said. “We don’t know exactly what happened. People are still looking at it.”

Cooper noted that the hood is usually used to ventilate the fumes of six beakers. On Thursday, the hood contained 12 beakers.

“That may have overloaded the hood,” Cooper said. “It’s like a fireplace. If you build a big enough fire, the chimney can’t draw it all.”

The incident, which Cooper told the Oregonian was the worst he has seen at PSU, drew enough administrative attention to pledge new, safer equipment.

The sulfuric acid experiment in question can be performed with smaller amounts of chemicals in an industrial microwave, Cooper said. He said Vice President for Finance and Administration Cathy Dyck gave a verbal pledge for a microwave unit, which runs about $15,000.