Improper Storage & Aging Chemicals Harbor Hidden Hazards - Part 1

There are likely to be few places where firefighters and other emergency response personnel will encounter a wider variety of dangerous chemicals than in a chemical laboratory. Labs can be found in a variety of locations, including industrial complexes, research facilities, and high schools and colleges, to name a few.

High school and college labs are particularly dangerous because the variety of chemicals used and stored there may be greater than in any other labs. While the quantities of individual chemicals are usually relatively small, collectively and, in some cases, individually, the danger to response personnel can be significant.

Chemicals can be toxic in very small amounts when absorbed through the skin, inhaled or ingested. They can also cause eye damage, skin burns, illness and cancer. Every category of U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) hazard classes can be found among the chemicals in a high school or college lab setting. Other labs are more specialized, so the range of chemicals is limited to research projects or analytical needs of each facility.

Storage Conditions

When stored with caution, most chemicals do not pose an unreasonable threat under normal conditions. Chemicals in laboratories, however, are often stored in improper locations and in alphabetical order, which may place totally incompatible chemicals on the same shelf. Storing chemicals alphabetically can place dangerous materials such as nitric acid, which is a strong oxidizer, on the same shelf with flammable liquids. Mixing the two can result in an explosive compound. A more appropriate storage system may be one in which organic and inorganic chemical families are stored together.

Many chemical-supply companies include proper storage system information in their catalogs. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) also may contain information about chemical compatibility. MSDS should be maintained on file for each chemical in a laboratory. Manufacturers or chemical suppliers can provide MSDS on request; in many cases, they are shipped automatically with chemicals.

Chemicals that require refrigeration or storage in flammable-liquid or acid cabinets are often stored on open shelves in a lab or classroom. Acids and bases, while categorized by the DOT as corrosives, react violently with each other, and should be stored separately. Other chemicals can be dangerous under normal conditions, such as exposure to heat, shock, friction, water or air. Care must be taken to store these chemicals in safe locations.

Photo by Robert Burke
When stored with caution, most chemicals do not pose an unreasonable threat under normal conditions, but improper storage of chemicals can lead to accidents and injuries.

To make matters worse, chemicals can degrade, dehydrate or form dangerous compounds as they age. Many compounds that are normally safe may become shock- or heat-sensitive explosives when old. This can create risk for emergency response personnel if they are unaware of the dangers. Often times, lab personnel and teachers are unfamiliar with the hazards of aging chemicals. Fire in-spectors must be aware of these dangers so they can point them out during inspections of laboratories.

Smaller Labs

In many industrial and educational occupancies, lab operations take up only a small space. Plating labs, for example, are used to maintain the quality of plating solutions within the plant. Chemicals found there are fairly limited and include cyanide, sodium hydroxide, and many different types of acids. Contact between acids and cyanide can produce deadly hydrogen cyanide gas.

Other types of industrial labs are used to maintain quality control of manufactured products and chemicals may vary from one facility to the next. Pre-planning is an important step in determining the hazards of these facilities. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 45, as well as NFPA 30, 49, 325, 491M and 704, are good sources of information concerning fire-code issues in lab occupancies.

Photo by Robert Burke
Acetic acid vapors caused corrosion to this metal container. Acids should be stored in specially designed cabinets.

Research facilities at industrial plants and universities also use limited, but very specific chemicals based upon their work. Some of these facilities also pose an additional biological hazard. Once again, pre-planning should ease the minds of response personnel when fires or other emergencies occur at these locations. Marking systems such as NFPA 704 or Hazard Communication should be used to identify areas within buildings where dangerous chemical or biological materials may be used and stored along with emergency contact information for use by response personnel during an emergency.

Some chemicals found in labs are harmless, while others can be flammable, oxidizers, corrosive, toxic or explosive. Firefighters may be confused by chemical names and not know by its name whether a material is dangerous. Warning markings are not always conspicuous on smaller containers. While positive identification is most desired, determining a hazard class, or chemical family can identify the hazard generally associated with the chemical. The North American Emergency Response Guidebook (NAERG) can also be useful to first responders.

My next column will describe common laboratory chemicals that become increasingly dangerous as they age.

Robert Burke, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland and has served on state and county hazmat response teams. Burke is a veteran of over 17 years in career and volunteer fire departments, serving as assistant chief and deputy state fire marshal. He holds an associate's degree in fire protection technology and a bachelor's degree in fire science, and is pursuing a master's degree in public administration. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, and is the author of the textbooks Hazardous Materials Chemistry For Emergency Responders, published in 1997, and Counter-Terrorism for Emergency Responders, to be published this year. He can be reached on the Internet at