I was stuck in the house last weekend due to frigid temperatures and a bad case of the flu, so I managed to catch up on some skimming of potentially interesting books I had brought home from the library. At the risk of revealing my inner nerd, one was "Modern Organic Synthesis in the Laboratory: A Collection of Standard Experimental Procedures", looking for safety advice being given to chemistry majors in 2007.
In section 1.1.2 on "Material Safety Data Sheets" (in Section 1.1, helpfully titled "Safety!"), the authors note:
"Gone are the days when a chemist could smoke a cigarette in the laboratory. Arthur J. Birch was photographed smoking a cigar while demonstrating an ether extraction, which is unthinkable today."
End of section; the next section is "Never Taste Chemicals".
The question that came to my mind while reading this was:
Why did the authors feel the need to note Mr. Birch's lab habits in this context?
Does this choice tell us something about the risk culture being established by the text?
(An interesting irony of this observation is that the introductory sentence of the MSDS section advises that caution is particularly warranted for "reactive chemicals, carcinogens and toxic reagents". However, the example they used to illustrate the point is presumably related to the flammability of ether, rather than those particular hazards of the situation)
Anyway, I've been thinking about this question long enough that I needed to write it out and share it before it will go away...
Comments and insights would be appreciated.
Ralph Stuart, CIH, CCHO
Chemical Hygiene Officer
Keene State College
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