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Hazmats among us on college campuses

4 questions higher ed leaders should be asking about hazardous waste on campus
University Business, May 2017
  • SUBSTANCE ALERT—Hazardous waste materials aren't just limited to items found in chemical containers at colleges. Toxic and corrosive materials can be in anything from electronic devices and fluorescent lamps to mercury thermometers and batteries. (AU Photographic Services.)
  • CLEAN SWEEP—Higher ed researchers at Auburn U are reminded in a waste management policy guide to work with Environmental Health & Safety on proper handling and disposal of materials when they leave—rather than just abandoning the lab.
  • Visible—and hidden—hazmat areas across college campus. (GettyImages.com: mathisworks).

Renowned research chemist Karen Wetterhahn was working with dimethyl mercury in her lab at Dartmouth College, when she spilled a drop of the toxic compound on her glove.

She had taken every precaution possible while working with the volatile substance, from using a hood to prevent her from inhaling fumes, to wearing a face shield to protect her eyes and face, and putting on latex gloves to protect her hands.

Unfortunately, the chemical was absorbed by the glove instantly and, perhaps unbeknownst to her, made contact with her skin.

Waste management providers on understanding hazmat

What is the biggest mistaken belief higher ed leaders have about hazardous materials and chemicals on campus?

“The biggest misconception actually has to do with nonhazardous material. There is an assumption that because an item is labelled nonhazardous, there are no special disposal methods required, and the waste can just be thrown away. Also, while there are federal and state regulations, some local municipalities may accept nonhazardous items with specialized disposal techniques required at the landfills or local recycling centers. Sometimes, this applies to small amounts of hazardous materials as well.”

Stacey Van Auken, customer service manager, Environmental Marketing Services LLC

While Wetterhahn thought little of the incident at the time, five months later she began experiencing neurological difficulties. Following testing, she was diagnosed with mercury poisoning with mercury levels at 80 times the standard measure for toxicity in her blood. She passed away 10 months later, according to an article in Science magazine.

Could anything have been done to prevent this particular tragedy? Perhaps not, as her colleagues insisted. Wetterhahn was an experienced chemist with years of training.

While Wetterhahn’s tragedy, which happened in the 1990s, attracted a fair amount of attention, there have been other similarly serious accidents.

In 2016, postdoctoral researcher Thea Elkins-Coward was seriously injured at the University of Hawaii following an explosion in the lab. In 2010, a graduate researcher at Texas Tech was injured during a chemical explosion.

In 2009, Malcolm Casadaben, a researcher at the University of Chicago Medical Center died as a result of being exposed to Yersenia Pestis, a bacterium that causes plague. That same year at UCLA, Sheri Sangji died as a result of a T-butyllithium fire.

A reality is that many incidents involving hazardous materials occur on college campuses due to lack of training, emergency preparation or knowledge of the substances in question. Here are four questions facilities administrators as well as other campus officials should be asking to lower the risk of a hazardous materials tragedy.

1. Where are hazardous materials located?

The term “hazardous waste” conjures up drums of chemicals in a laboratory, or perhaps gasoline tanks in the facilities garages—which are in fact two of the most common places hazardous materials are found. But hazardous materials—flammable, corrosive, reactive and toxic substances—are found in various corners of campuses.

Not only are chemicals potentially hazardous, but you can find toxic or corrosive materials in everything from electronic devices to fluorescent lamps to mercury thermometers, paints and batteries. “You’ve got them all over campus,” says James Kaufman, president and CEO of The Laboratory Safety Institute, based in Natick, Massachusetts.

Waste management providers on understanding hazmat (cont.)

What is the biggest mistaken belief higher ed leaders have about hazardous materials and chemicals on campus?

“Developing a more proactive approach to hazardous waste management is often the biggest challenge Veolia ​faces with customers in academia. Higher learning institutions are densely populated with students and researchers who have varying experience levels relative to hazardous materials management. The work setting is dramatically different from industrial environments, and the safety and long-term liabilities can be even greater.”

Bob Cappadona, president and chief operating officer, Veolia North America

2. How can colleges prevent injuries and accidents?

Incidents involving spills of hazardous chemicals, the release of biohazards or contact with toxic substances can occur when these items aren’t labeled properly. Kaufman advises first making a comprehensive inventory.

“Go room by room, looking at labels to identify any materials that may be hazardous,” he says. “Knowing what you’ve got and who needs to be trained is important.”

Entering that information into a database for easy reference helps safety personnel, faculty and staff be more aware of the training they may need and how to prevent exposure.

“A well-managed chemical inventory is essential,” says Elaine Ault, chemistry laboratory manager and an instructor at Lourdes University in Ohio. This practice will help ensure the removal of an outdated or unnecessary chemicals—as well as provides the chance to inspect the condition of chemical containers.

As part of a chemical hygiene plan, a chemical inventory is also required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, says Ault.

Access to Safety Data Sheets (SDS), formerly known as MSDS, for all toxic substances is mandated as well. SDS contain detailed information about the properties of each chemical, associated health hazards, protective measures and precautions required for safe handling, storage and transportation of the chemical.

For example, are flammable liquids kept in cabinets approved for flammable liquids?

Keeping appropriate personal protective equipment close at-hand is important. You can determine what you need only once you know what substances are present in the lab, classroom or facility, says Kaufman.

Everyone on campus—faculty, staff, lab technicians, facilities professionals and students—should receive basic safety training and then more specific training based on the particular compounds or substances being studied.

Laboratory chemicals “are typically more dangerous to the person using the materials than to the campus community at large,” says Steven Nelson, associate director of environmental health and safety at Auburn University in Alabama.

At the University of Michigan, all researchers receive lab safety training, says Terrance Alexander, executive director of the Office of Environment, Health and Safety. Anyone working with biologics or radio isotopes receives additional guidance.

Grounds and maintenance staff go through numerous safety sessions—in-person, in groups and one-on-one, plus online—to learn to deal with various hazards. “We’ve trained over 10,000 members of the campus community,” Alexander says. “More training is the best line of defense.”

A campuswide safety manual to standardize procedures for handling hazardous materials is a must. Kaufman advises having every employee sign a safety agreement that makes them aware of the repercussions for ignoring the rules.

An active campus safety committee that meets regularly is another best practice, as are internal lab inspections that occur at least monthly, says Kaufman.

Colleges must also have emergency plans in place—and items such as spill kits on hand—to respond quickly and prevent damage when an accident occurs. Local fire departments should be informed about what kind of materials are stored on campus and where so they know how best to respond when an emergency call comes in.

Another must: Clear disposal policies that comply with federal and state regulations. Failure to follow these procedures can result in accidents and expensive fines.

Waste management providers on understanding hazmat (cont.)

What is the biggest mistaken belief higher ed leaders have about hazardous materials and chemicals on campus?

“One of the biggest misconceptions I’ve seen from higher ed leaders about hazardous material disposal is the requirement of incineration as the preferred method of disposal. Incineration is one method for disposal of hazardous waste, but in many cases it is not the most economical or environmentally sustainable method. Many organic materials can be recycled or blended into an alternative fuel.”

—Chris Kruhm, director of operations, Direct Disposal Solutions

3. What is the best way to dispose of hazardous materials?

All campuses have some quantity of hazardous materials, especially in chemistry and research labs, Nelson says. Larger, research-intensive universities generally have a greater quantity on-hand while smaller schools, though they store fewer chemicals, may still have a variety of highly hazardous substances.

At The University of Oklahoma College of Pharmacy, the Environmental Health and Safety Office collects hazardous waste directly from laboratories or central accumulation points, says Trent Brown, university environmental health and safety officer.

Waste is then disposed in accordance with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the law that provides the framework for the proper management of hazardous materials and best practices for environmental stewardship.

Officials coordinate a weekly designated collection time and campus location. “This enables the university to better manage hazardous waste collections by reducing quantities stored at the point of generation and by providing for a timely, streamlined process in disposing of hazardous materials,” says Brown.

Many higher ed institutions rely on multiple disposal companies to pick up hazardous materials, with different companies specializing in particular types of substances.

Waste management providers on understanding hazmat (cont.)

What is the biggest mistaken belief higher ed leaders have about hazardous materials and chemicals on campus?

“To maintain a small-quantity generator status that allows an institution to have more flexibility and less cost in their overall program, no more than 2.2 pounds of acute hazardous waste can be accumulated on site at one time. Efficient and safe hazardous waste management for colleges is complex and highly regulated. Misconceptions about the requirements can lead to a change in generator status or fines.”

—Maricha Ellis, vice president, Stericycle Environmental Solutions

4. How can schools maintain safety while keeping handling and disposal costs down?

A challenge for smaller schools with a variety of smaller-volume hazardous chemicals is the cost of disposal. Auburn’s budget for chemical waste disposal is around $60,000 per year for the removal of 60,000 pounds, approximately $1 per pound, says Nelson, adding that smaller colleges will typically pay much more to remove smaller amounts.

Establishing an annual contract for waste disposal can control costs. Auburn has hazardous waste picked up every 90 days. That includes drums of waste, and chemical disposal lab packs containing much smaller containers. Drums of waste solvent or mixed acids typically cost 25 to 75 cents per pound to dispose of, and lab packs cost $1.25 per pound.

For that reason, there’s an incentive to combine materials into as few drums as possible. Auburn consolidates waste solvents with nonreactive complementary chemicals to reduce the number of lab packs it has to ship out.

The cost of hazardous materials can also be driven up by unknown chemicals, which may be found in unlabeled containers days or weeks after a researcher leaves a university. A disposal company must often be hired to identify the substance—which can be expensive.

Additional savings are lost if the material, had it been identified, could have been used in other labs.

Lab safety first

Not sure if your lab safety guidelines fall into best practices?

The nonprofit Laboratory Safety Institute offers a free copy of its laboratory safety guidelines at www.labsafetyinstitute.org/ LabSafetyGuidelines.html.

Institutions should establish lab close-out procedures that require the researcher to identify all materials and mark them for disposal or redistribution to other labs, says Nelson.

Because disposing of chemicals is often more expensive than purchasing them, he adds, researchers should be encouraged to order only what they need for the year.

Colleges and universities that carefully follow hazmat regulations reduce the risk of an incident, minimize fines, control costs and improve the overall functioning of its campus departments.


Marcia Layton Turner is a Rochester, New York-based writer.

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