Improper Labeling Causes Injury from Acid Spray

September 30, 2004

What Happened?

A UC Berkeley researcher was preparing a sample for microscopy. After he had cleaned the sample with isopropanol, he poured the extra isopropanol into a container for unwanted chemicals labeled “isopropanol.” There was an immediate chemical reaction that caused the plastic container to rupture and spray the mixture around the area. He was later surprised to learn that the container actually held concentrated nitric acid in the form of spent copper etchant.

The researcher was startled and called for help. Other researchers promptly came to his assistance and called 911. When he felt a burning sensation on his skin, he washed his body and face in the nearby emergency eyewash and safety shower for approximately five minutes. The UC Police Department (UCPD), the Berkeley Fire Department (BFD), and the Office of Environment, Health & Safety (EH&S) responded. However, the researcher did not wait for these emergency personnel and was escorted by a colleague on foot across campus to the University Health Service (UHS) Tang Center to be medically evaluated. The researcher was later released after being treated for acid burns.

What was the cause?

This accident happened because the container with unwanted chemicals was improperly labeled with the wrong chemical name. The researcher was not aware that the container labeled 2-propanol actually contained concentrated nitric acid. Nitric acid is a powerful oxidizing acid; explosions can occur when organic chemicals (such as isopropanol) are added to strong oxidizing acids.

What corrective action was taken?

After the accident, the principal investigator (PI) for the laboratory halted research and organized a general cleanup of the laboratory. The storage area for unwanted chemicals was improved immediately by clearly labeling all chemical containers and research samples. Following the investigation and debriefing with the PI, there was a laboratory meeting to discuss improved laboratory safety procedures that included reviewing the chemical hygiene plan.

Be extra careful with nitric acid waste!

Unwanted chemical bottle that blew its top spraying nitric acid on researcher

Unwanted chemical bottle that blew its top spraying nitric acid on researcher.

Notice that the plastic waste container is tinged blue and labeled 2-propanol. The blue tinge is from "copper etchant." Nitric acid was in the unwanted chemical container, not 2-propanol.