Hydrochloric acid causes accidents in University chemical laboratories

By Joel Hattis

Chemistry students are exposed to potent chemicals as part of their curriculum, opening up the possibility for serious accidents to occur.

Hydrochloric acid, a gas dissolved in water that is the primary component of stomach acid, can also be found in just about any chemical laboratory.

However, the concentration of the acid used in labs can be up to twelve times that of acid in human stomachs. To make matters worse, the acid is a highly volatile substance and the stronger the concentration, the more potent the fumes.

“It’s pretty much like dissolving carbon dioxide in water to make soda,” said James Lisy, University professor of physical chemistry.

Just being close to the acid involves a certain degree of risk. The eyes and lungs are particularly vulnerable targets.

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    To prevent accidents, several precautions are taken by the chemistry department. Goggles are required, and it is also strongly advised that contacts are not worn during lab.

    Teaching assistants ensure that everything is in order and are prepared to take action should an accident occur. In addition, when dealing with chemicals as potent as hydrochloric acid, students are told to start the experiment immediately to prevent the fumes from entering the air system.

    Still, accidents happen.

    Jessica Pitrowski, sophomore in LAS, was carrying a beaker with a small amount of the acid by an open window when a draft of wind forced the vapors into her lungs.

    “It hurt a lot,” she said. “My nose was burning.”

    She reported this to her teaching assistant, but the burning was short lived. She did not believe it was anything pressing or worrisome, so the chemistry department filed no official report.

    A few hours later, however, her throat became sore, and she began to feel discomfort when she inhaled. The pain worsened as time passed.

    “It really began to kill, like, two days later,” she said. ” I just kept coughing, and there was nothing coming up.”

    A week after the accident, Pitrowski was forced to visit the hospital.

    “They said I had symptoms of a chemical burn,” she said. “But they would have needed more tests to be sure.”

    Even teaching assistants who work with the chemical on a weekly basis are not immune to its dangers.

    Leigh Anne Furgerson, graduate student, had a run-in with the acid turn ugly when she was making a batch of a weaker form from a highly concentrated solution when it “blew up in (her) face.”

    As a result from inhaling these fumes, she developed asthma that plagues her to this day, she said.

    Despite the risk of an accident, Lisy said it is still important for students to use these chemicals. He said the experience will not only help students understand how they work but also get practical experiences in safety precautions.

    “It’s like driving a car – you learn by experience, you learn by practice … just like driving, you have to exercise care and caution,” Lisy said. “For many students, it’s the first exposure to sort of the real aspects of synthetic organic chemistry.”