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I work with very toxic chemicals which serve as precursors for the materials I grow in the lab. In particular, one is a bioaccumulative neurotoxin that causes nerve damage and all other sorts of nasty stuff even at extremely low concentrations. The primary forms that we are exposed to in our lab would be particulates in open air and organometallic coordination complexes in organic solvent.

I have always been extremely paranoid about bioaccumulative neurotoxins, but in the past I've never felt like the research was actually a danger.

Recently though, I've found my behavioral patterns changing involuntarily. I'm beginning to wake up at the slightest exposure to light in the morning, resulting in me waking up at 6 AM instead of my usual 9 AM. This has never happened before in my entire life and it's been persisting for 2 weeks, ever since I started heavily synthesizing my own samples and being in the synthesis side of the lab more. This occurs even if I sleep at 1-2 AM, which indicates to me that something has changed with my neural physiology, and is consistent with chronic exposure to a neuroactive substance.

I've also started to notice a few problems related to storage and post-processing of the precursors and final samples.

The professor and postdoc tell me that if we just follow standard procedure, we'll be OK. But I'm having my doubts that 1. standard procedure is enough and 2. nominal standard procedure is even being followed at all times. However, I also don't want to get my lab shut down.

Here is what I currently do to minimize exposure: 

the minute I get home, take off ANY clothes worn to the synthesis lab after a day of synthesis.

shoes left at the door after being wiped in outside grass to minimize particulate transport from lab to home.

change gloves every single time I work with these substances.

never touch anything in the lab without gloves or a piece of Kimwipe paper between me and whatever I'm touching.

wash my hands in an outside bathroom after any time handling the chemical or anything in its proximity.

However, I also do know that others in the lab do not follow these procedures and thus may be contaminating ordinary surfaces with particulates. I would like to bring up chemical safety and minimizing everyone's exposure to dangerous chemicals.

Should I see a doctor about my symptoms? I'm on student insurance right now and I don't know the best way to get help.

What is a good way to bring this up without assigning blame? In the meantime, what personal steps can I take to reduce exposure?

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I can post on this more later (at an interview now), but it would be really helpful to know the name of the chemical - you can PM me if you don't want to post it. 

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Are you working with these materials under a properly vented hood? Also are you wearing a lab coat? Personally I don't work with anything too dangerous but my primary concern would be for me own health. Disruptions to your circadian rhythm can occur for many reasons (including stress from fear of exposure), but you should start monitoring your symptoms immediately if you believe there to be an issue. Your student health plan should include visits to your university's doctors as well as some sort of referral program that may not cost you anything. If you have lab meetings I would bring up the issue there, especially to make sure that everybody in your lab is following proper procedure. Aside from that you could also request a proper ventilation mask when working with the chemical. The last thing a lab or PI wants is a national headline that one of their members got hurt from an issue that was not addressed.

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19 minutes ago, zipykido said:

Are you working with these materials under a properly vented hood? Also are you wearing a lab coat? Personally I don't work with anything too dangerous but my primary concern would be for me own health. Disruptions to your circadian rhythm can occur for many reasons (including stress from fear of exposure), but you should start monitoring your symptoms immediately if you believe there to be an issue. Your student health plan should include visits to your university's doctors as well as some sort of referral program that may not cost you anything. If you have lab meetings I would bring up the issue there, especially to make sure that everybody in your lab is following proper procedure. Aside from that you could also request a proper ventilation mask when working with the chemical. The last thing a lab or PI wants is a national headline that one of their members got hurt from an issue that was not addressed.

All processing of materials occurs in a closed atmosphere glovebox with an airlock. However, the precursor is transported to the box in powder form. The final films are also cut outside the box with a diamond saw. All waste is stored in a dedicated waste hood. I've been testing myself for other signs of nerve damage but those are supposed to only manifest at acute exposures.

I'm buying some surgery masks today.

Thanks for the tips. I've arranged a visit to the campus doctor and hope my blood tests come back negative.

Edited by SymmetryOfImperfection
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5 hours ago, SymmetryOfImperfection said:

All processing of materials occurs in a closed atmosphere glovebox with an airlock. However, the precursor is transported to the box in powder form. The final films are also cut outside the box with a diamond saw. All waste is stored in a dedicated waste hood. I've been testing myself for other signs of nerve damage but those are supposed to only manifest at acute exposures.

I'm buying some surgery masks today.

Thanks for the tips. I've arranged a visit to the campus doctor and hope my blood tests come back negative.

Just make sure that the masks will properly protect you. Regular face masks don't do a great job of filtering out small particulates, only large dust particles and maybe a virus or two. Don't stress out about the results too much since that can cause idiopathic symptoms, but do keep in mind that you have the option of contacting your university's EHS department if you find something in the blood test. 

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Hopefully your changes in sleep patterns are a result of something more benign, such as stress.

I don't think there is a way to improve lab safety culture without a bit of confrontation. Standing up in group meeting and telling everybody "Be safer" doesn't make much of a difference if people (i) don't think they are to blame (ii) don't care about the consequences of not following safety procedures (iii) don't know how to work safer. If there are 1 or 2 offenders then I would talk to them in person and in private to explain what the problem with their practices are, and - this is crucial - why it is a problem. A "demonstration of good safety practices" for the compounds in question might be an option if there are a group of people using the particular chemicals.

Give your PI a private heads-up that there are safety non-compliance issues - you don't have to name names to the boss, but they should know that there is a problem. 

Think about changes you can make to lab set-up to minimise exposure. Can the diamond saw be moved to a fume hood? Can the precusor(s) be stored in the glovebox? 

Also, you can try contacting your university's health & safety department. At our university, they can give labs/students advice on best practices for using/handling/storing particular chemicals, and they can also come around to check out the lab set-up (not in the context of a safety audit) for the chemical. 

 

 

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