Date: Fri, 2 Mar 2007 12:10:05 -0500
Reply-To: Russ Phifer <rphifer**At_Symbol_Here**GLASMESH.COM>
Sender: DCHAS-L Discussion List <DCHAS-L**At_Symbol_Here**LIST.UVM.EDU>
From: Russ Phifer <rphifer**At_Symbol_Here**GLASMESH.COM>
Subject: Re: 3 RE: College's workers apparently transporting chemicals
without being told proper procedures
Comments: To: List Moderator
In-Reply-To: <A6D9B6E4-64FB-4179-A436-26835616737C**At_Symbol_Here**>

I agree with John - I was appalled by this supposed news article, 
which was
poorly written, poorly researched, and highly inflammatory (no pun
intended).   While the subsequent detonation supposedly =93shook the 
I suspect it was the explosive booster the fire department needed to set 
the picric acid that was responsible for the majority of the noise.   I 
safely handled and moistened dry picric acid many times, after carefully
researching any and all incidents noted anywhere involving picric acid
explosions.  Since the advent of plastic caps on reagent bottles, there 
no documented incidents involving injury or property damage associated 
picric acid in reagent bottles.  There simply isn=92t any justifiable 
to say that picric acid has been uniformly banned on college campuses - 
hasn=92t.  While it is prudent to handle all trinitro compounds with 
care, I
am disappointed that a lab disposal company would add to the panic; this
indicates their personnel are not adequately trained or technically
qualified.  Certainly Ohlone College needs to do a better job of 
their own employees, but they might also consider looking for a 
responsible disposal company that isn=92t so free with quotations for 


Russ Phifer



WC Environmental, LLC
PO Box 1718

West Chester, PA  19380

610-696-9220 x12

61-344-7519 fax

HYPERLINK "mailto:rphifer**At_Symbol_Here**"rphifer**At_Symbol_Here**


From: DCHAS-L Discussion List [mailto:DCHAS-L**At_Symbol_Here**LIST.UVM.EDU] On Behalf Of
List Moderator
Sent: Wednesday, February 28, 2007 7:59 AM
To: DCHAS-L**At_Symbol_Here**LIST.UVM.EDU
Subject: 3 RE: College's workers apparently transporting chemicals 
being told proper procedures


John DeLaHunt's correspondence with the author of the article I  

passed along yesterday...


- Ralph




From: JDelahunt**At_Symbol_Here**

Subject: RE: College's workers apparently transporting chemicals  

without being told proper procedures

Date: Tue, 27 Feb 2007 21:26:07 -0700


Curious to me that the writer compared 25 grams (<1 ounce) of moist  

picric with the Halifax explosion, which was ton quantities of high  









From: Angela Woodall [mailto:awoodall**At_Symbol_Here**]

Sent: Tue 2/27/2007 11:29 PM


Thank you for your e-mail.


I am not sure what the nature of your comment was. But just to assure  

you of my intentions I will say that the site you copied in your e- 

mail is one of the many that I used to gather info about picric acid.


In addition, I was not comparing 25 g of the acid to the Halifax  

incident. Rather, the explosion was used to illustrate the explosive  

nature of the acid. Whether it was as dangerous, the janitor who  

handled it seemed stunned by the connection. That's human nature.


In addition, if the quantity were harmless, would the Hazmat unit of  

the Fremont Fire Dept. have called in the bomb squad? Maybe it was a  

precaution, but the point was that individuals with no knowledge,  

equipment or training to handle hazardous materials were doing so.  

The college clearly needed to update its procedures, as the concern  

voiced to me (and the investigation) by OSHA illustrates.


Thanks again for your feedback.






From: JDelahunt**At_Symbol_Here**

Date: Tue, 27 Feb 2007 21:26:07 -0700



Ms. Woodall;


The nature of my comment was criticism about the connection between  

the Halifax explosion and 25 grams of moist picric acid.  Even if the  

materials are similar, the scale must register with even the least  

scientific of observers.


Ohlone:  25 grams (0.000025 tons) picric acid

Halifax:   1,602,519 kilograms (1,602.5 tons) wet picric acid, 544,311

(544 tons) kilograms dry picric acid


Taking all the Halifax picric acid together, there was about 85  

MILLION times more mass on the Halifax than in the Ohlone case.  Your  

article doesn't mention that, and the omission makes the Ohlene case  

appear worse than it was, simply by inference, even if we agree that  

you did not intend a comparison.


At no point did I state or infer that picric acid is "harmless."   

Your assumption that I take that posture is unwelcome and unsupported.


However, since you've had the courtesy to respond, let me air some  

other concerns about your presentation of the story:


"Volatile" is a poor word choice.  As a term of art in chemistry,  

"volatile" means "capable of evaporating rapidly."  I appreciate that  

Roget considers "explosive" and "volatile" to be synonymous in the  

vernacular, but I believe the latter in this case would better refer  

to "a volatile temper."


Only dry picric acid is unstable, and then generally only when in  

contact with transition metals - the Wikipedia article on the Halifax  

explosion mentions this.  It is routine among chemists to simply  

invert a container of picric (with a plastic lid, a detail your  

coverage of the Ohlone case omitted) in water, allow the threads to  

moisten, open the lid, moisten the material inside, and then dispose  

of it as a flammable solid or a toxic liquid.  In fact, this process  

is required before transportation if the moisture level is unknown  

(since transportation of dry - by which we mean <10% by weight water)  

picric acid on public roads by motor vehicle requires substantially  

more training and certification per 49 CFR 172.101 et seq.


Your coverage neglects to cite the basis of the declarative comment  

that picric acid has been banned on college campuses.  This news  

hasn't come to campuses across the country - the purchase of picric  

acid is a matter of routine, especially for tissue staining (Bouin's  

stain) and organic synthesis.  Specialty chemical companies sell it  

regardless of the ban you report.  If this is a quote, you failed to  

attribute it.  If it's speculation, it's mistaken, considering the  

evidence to the contrary. Either way, it's erroneous to include that  

report in the coverage as you chose to.


Picral is a 4% (by weight) solution of picric acid in ethanol - the  

ethanol is not a neutralizing solution (it is not a base, though  

picric acid is an acid), it is a stabilizer.


Your conclusion that temperature (an inaccurate term from the  

perspective of basic thermodynamics - "heat" or "high temperature"  

would have been more appropriate) or motion could have made the  

picric acid explode is unfalsifiable - without actual experience  

(i.e. testing or an unexpected explosion) one cannot deduce whether  

this material was sufficiently dry to be shock sensitive.  Picric  

acid, when 10% wet - adequate to stabilize, appears as a flowable  

solid.  That is, it looks dry, but it may well not be so.  Prudence  

is the proper course of action in any case where the true degree of  

wetness is unknown, but nothing short of an explosion indicates  

whether this or that picric acid was actually dry enough to be shock  



Whether Decon Environmental or the Fremont Fire department knows the  

details of picric acid or not is pure speculation.  In my experience,  

the FD prefers not to handle things that might be explosive, whether  

or not they are, and hazardous waste technicians often lack  

experience in the subtle chemistry of organonitrates from laboratories.


Regardless, though, 25 grams of high explosive is a small explosion.   

By comparison, the M61 Fragmentation Grenade uses 5.5 ounces of  

tetryl as its energy source (according to 

dod-101/sys/land/m61.htm), and has an effective range (casualty  

radius) of 15 meters, a function more of the shrapnel than the energy  

source.  A high power rifle cartridge may have one half an ounce of  

gunpowder (a low explosive) as its energy source (according to http://  The rifle and grenade both  

increase their potency by enclosing the explosion in metal - far more  

effective at maximizing power than glass (or plastic, another detail  

your article omitted).  This essentially brackets the potential power  

of the material, had it been, in fact, shock sensitive.  Somewhere  

between the charge in a grenade and the charge in a high-powered  

rifle bullet.


Based on my experience with explosive deactivation of reactive  

chemicals, I believe that the Alameda Bomb Squad had to initiate the  

explosion with something; I suspect they used det sheet and det cord,  

which would have increased the explosive mass in the explosive  

construct by as much as an order of magnitude or more.  I suspect  

that an explosion of exactly the same construction, except without  

the picric acid, would also shake the campus and set off car alarms.   

Your coverage omits these details, so all we have is speculation.


The science is the science and the facts are the facts.  In my  

opinion as a chemist, indignation - which appears to be rife in your  

coverage - over Ohlene's approach to hazardous materials handling  

grants you no license to abbreviate the science in the matter.





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