March came in like a lion for Port Metro Vancouver when a shipping container full of trichloroisocyanuric acid imported from China exploded, creating a massive chemical fire with toxic brown-grey smoke that swept east into the city as well as the neighbouring municipalities of Burnaby and Coquitlam. 

The March 4 afternoon blaze forced thousands of people to hunker down in their homes, shut off all heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems and keep windows and doors closed. More than a dozen people were treated in hospital for respiratory distress. A month after the conflagration, investigators still hadn’t pinpointed the exact cause. However, it is known that contamination or a disruption like moisture can cause trichloroisocyanuric acid to heat up, explode and catch fire.

The trichloroisocyanuric acid — a white, crystalline powder with a myriad of industrial uses — was destined for Eastern Canada. It was one of several containers of trichloroisocyanuric acid being stored at Port Metro, Canada’s largest port and the fourth biggest in North America. Trichloroisocyanuric acid is a commonly transported good, with 500 containers of the chemical being moved through the Vancouver facility, located on the south side of Burrard Inlet, last year.

Philip Jessop of Queen’s University advocates green chemistry to boost lab safety.

Philip Jessop of Queen’s University advocates green chemistry to boost lab safety.

Vancouver city, fire and port authorities downplayed the impact of the fire, stating that the environmental impact was minimal due to quick dispersal, which reduced the 800-metre exclusion zone to 100 metres within 24 hours. But Philip Jessop, technical director at GreenCentre Canada and a Queen’s University chemistry and environmental studies professor, says that the dangers of trichloroisocyanuric acid shouldn’t be underestimated. Fire causes it to release poisonous gases like chlorine and nitrogen trichloride as well as cyanuric acid and carbon monoxide. Gases like chlorine and nitrogen trichloride are “severely damaging to the lungs, depending upon the concentrations that you are breathing in,” says Jessop, the Canada Research Chair in Green Chemistry. 

Trichloroisocyanuric acid is highly utilitarian. It has numerous uses: a disinfectant for pools and hot tubs, a bactericide and algaecide and a bleaching agent for textiles. Yet it “is certainly a chemical that you would want to find green replacements for,” says Jessop. While the repercussions of the Vancouver explosion were minimal, emergency responders or the public may not be so lucky next time. To prevent damage to the lungs, police as well as fire personnel who fought the blaze wore protective self-contained breathing apparatus, which provides breathable air in dangerous atmospheres. But such “engineered safety” measures, including protective gear in labs or chemical plants, aren’t foolproof, says Jessop. If the user isn’t well trained, or the apparatus doesn’t work properly, then exposure to toxic chemicals can happen. This is why, says Jessop, green chemistry seeks to reduce reliance on such engineered safety measures, replacing them with “inherent safety” chemicals, or non-toxic alternatives to workhorse substances like trichloroisocyanuric acid, in order to mitigate the risk of human error, container deterioration or plain old bad luck. 

Green chemistry is still in its infancy and will take, some say, a generation before it is fully adopted by the chemical sector. But a pathway to success can be seen in the evolution of traditional lab and environmental safety, which have come a long way since the 1970s. The latest step forward for safety standards is the official adoption on June 1 by the Canadian government of the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals. The GHS was developed and adopted by the United Nations in 2002 as a new global regulatory mechanism to mitigate accidents in countries where chemicals like pesticides were widely used, but where language differences and illiteracy increased the risk of misuse. GHS defines and classifies chemical hazards, while communicating health and safety information on labels and data sheets. Chemical labels have standardized symbols such as distinct hazard pictograms and oral toxicity ratings ranging from one to four, with one and two denoting “fatal if swallowed.” 

The UN has declared the system non-binding. However, the Canadian government, which to date has overseen chemical safety under the auspices of the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System, or WHMIS, states that those elements of the GHS explicitly adopted by Canada will be enforced. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, this alignment of  the GHS with WHMIS is being dubbed WHMIS 2015 and covers “chemicals in the workplace, transport, consumer products, pesticides and pharmaceuticals. The target audiences for the GHS include workers, transport workers, emergency responders and consumers.”

Eric Mead taught laboratory safety for 30 years and was an instructor of chemical technology at Saskatchewan Polytechnic. He also taught lab safety courses for the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC) and the Canadian Society for Chemical Technology (CSCT). Retired now and living in Comox, BC, Mead applauds the new GHS system for expanding upon WHMIS in several key areas. For example, the GHS now calls for chemical mixtures — solutions that are sold in large batches to laboratories by supply companies — as well as proprietary compounds to identify the contents and provide a hazard classification for them. Furthermore, the GHS calls for the classification of substances that impact the environment as well as those that affect human health. Environmental impacts can result from either acute or chronic toxicity to organisms, or bioaccumulation where substances become more concentrated as they travel up the food chain. (At deadline, the US, which has already embraced the GHS, was also debating replacing its outdated 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act with the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. This new dictum would require a review of all “active chemicals in commerce” based upon risk to public health and the environment.) 

Burning trichloroisocyanuric acid released­ clouds of chlorine gas and nitrogen trichloride that swept into East Vancouver and the neighbouring municipalities of Burnaby and Coquitlam.

Burning trichloroisocyanuric acid released­ clouds of chlorine gas and nitrogen trichloride that swept into East Vancouver and the neighbouring municipalities of Burnaby and Coquitlam. 

The GHS will help streamline the progression towards safer laboratory settings. However, what truly makes a chemical workplace safe is its culture, which is supported by training and supervision, Mead says. For example, many universities in Canada don’t have chemistry courses that focus solely upon lab safety. However, all chemical technology courses accredited by the CSCT must have a laboratory safety class that students must pass in order to graduate. This, he suggests, is something universities could implement.   
It is generally acknowledged that industry, not academia, is the driver of safety within the chemical and chemical engineering sectors. The most obvious reason for this is that industrial accidents — when they do happen — tend, like the Port Metro Vancouver trichloroisocyanuric acid explosion, to affect many people, rather than an unfortunate few students when an experiment goes awry in a third-year chemistry lab. 

The granddaddy of industrial disasters for the modern age is, of course, the December 1984 Union Carbide India gas leak of toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC), used to make pesticides. (The cause of the leak was water flowing into a large storage tank of MIC.) The leak was reportedly linked to 8,000 deaths and more than 500,000 injuries. Jessop says that green chemistry dictates that a facility “never stockpile a dangerous intermediate chemical; only make the amount needed for today’s next step.” However, this major laboratory lesson wasn’t heeded by West Virginia’s Bayer CropScience pesticide manufacturing facility, which was storing MIC in August 2008 when an explosion occurred. According to a 2011 report by the United States Chemical Safety Board (CSB), a treater pressure vessel at Bayer over-pressurized, causing it to explode and careen into a methomyl pesticide manufacturing unit. If the exploding vessel had gone in a different direction, it would have hit a storage tank of MIC, possibly causing a massive release of the toxin into nearby populated communities and with the potential for  high rates of injury and death. 

Such incidents can be avoidable if a company has a solid safety program in place, says James Kaufman, retired chemistry professor at Curry College in Massachusetts and founder of the Laboratory Safety Institute, which has trained more than 100,000 instructors from primary school, academia, industry and government since 1978. Although Kaufman agrees that green chemistry principles, such as finding replacements for toxins, are “a good direction” to head, a more immediate and concrete step to take is ensuring that all new industrial employees receive a safety orientation from their immediate supervisor on day one, says Kaufman, who teaches lab safety courses in Canada for the CIC.

Kaufman first began work in 1973 as an industrial chemist at Dow Chemical Company in Wayland, Mass. following two years of post-doctoral research. His entire first day as a new employee, he recalls, was spent learning safety protocols. He was then asked to take Dow’s research safety manual home, learn it and sign it. More than 40 years later, one might expect all companies to have adopted Dow’s strict standards. However, when he asks companies and lab employees whether they have a safety manual outlining safety procedures, less than 50 percent answer in the affirmative, says Kaufman, who will be lecturing at the World Safety 2015 conference Sept. 30 to Oct. 1 in Saskatoon. Furthermore, when he asks scientists — an estimated 100,000 of them over the years — if their supervisor discussed the importance of safety on their first day, “only five percent said ‘yes.’ ” Yet, a supervisor’s vigilance and dedication to safety is, “I believe, the single most important component of a good safety program.” Surprisingly there is no comprehensive database of lab accidents detailing injuries and deaths in Canada and the US, says Kaufman. This absence of a formal database means that procedural or safety shortcomings can’t be properly tracked or monitored and thus ameliorated through new policy rules or regulations. Without hard data, Kaufman’s Laboratory Safety Institute has compiled an anecdotal list of those injured or killed in the laboratory, commemorating them online with a Virtual Memorial Wall.

In addition to tracking and recording accidents, Kaufman recommends other changes for boosting safety in labs. These include making the promotion of safety a criterion of tenure promotion for faculty members. As well, every organization whose employees work in laboratories should have set safety standards as well as an active safety committee. Furthermore all instructors, from the primary school level to professors supervising post-docs, should have safety training, he adds. 

Paul Fewer is the National Director Quality & Environment, Health and Safety at Maxxam, a company of 2,500 employees that provides analytical services and solutions to the energy, environmental, food and DNA industries. Fewer, who is past president and a director of the Canadian Association for Laboratory Accreditation, says that safety standards and expectations have increased significantly over the past 20 years. “Today, implementing and living a rigorous safety culture is critical for laboratories and their clients,” he says.

Occupational health and safety for a laboratory is more than a manual or an outline of company rules however, and requires regular vigilance. At Maxxam, safety training for new staff and refresher training for long-time employees “is part of everyday life,” Fewer says. The company also undertakes monthly inspections to scope out potential hazards, taking corrective action if needed. In its labs, Maxxam holds regular “tailgate meetings” to continuously reiterate safety policy and safe-work procedures. These tailgates may, for example, focus on chemicals or equipment used in the lab and how to mitigate any potential risk associated with them.

Vancouver fire and safety personnel analyzed the burned out shipping container to try to determine the cause of the trichloroisocyanuric acid explosion.

Vancouver fire and safety personnel analyzed the burned out shipping container to try to determine the cause of the trichloroisocyanuric acid explosion.

Safety for industrial workers has improved. But now these standards need to be brought into the university setting, where students — ambitious and impatient to produce another paper or attain high marks — are more cavalier about their safety, says Andrew Zlotorzynski, a former health and safety officer with the University of Ottawa’s faculties of science and engineering. Zlotorzynski, who currently is working as a safety leader with Sabic Basic Industries Corp. in Saudi Arabia, says that all universities should instigate Standard Operating Procedures — a safety structure for laboratories. In one of the more tragic accidents of the past few years, 23-year-old chemistry research assistant Sheri Sangji died of injuries sustained in a chemical lab fire in December 2008 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Sangji was working with t-butyl lithium (tBuLi), a highly flammable compound that spontaneously burns upon exposure to air. When the plunger on the syringe was dislodged, the tBuLi ignited, engulfing Sangji, who wasn’t wearing a lab coat. At the time, says Zlotorzynski, UCLA didn’t have set Standard Operating Procedures.  These include clearly documented written procedures on how to do every experiment undertaken in the lab. Such procedures must be verified, approved and enforced by competent, trained supervisors, which is usually the professor, Zlotorzynski says. To motivate professors and post-docs to undertake the appropriate safety training, all granting agencies should have safety requirements attached to them, he adds.

In the great scheme of things, the risk of accidents in chemistry laboratories is much lower than driving a car on the highway or even puttering around the house and garden. However, the death and accident rates are high enough to warrant more stringent legislation, such as the GHS, as well as increased training for supervisors and improved education for students. As Philip Jessop, chair of the Chemical Safety Committee at Queen’s says, “I never want to be a prof whose student died in the lab.”