UF suspends work at chemistry lab where blasts occurred

Sisler Hall on the University of Florida campus. Work is suspended at a chemistry lab in the building, where an explosion occurred.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, January 13, 2012 at 3:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 13, 2012 at 10:52 p.m.

The University of Florida has suspended chemistry work in a laboratory where explosions injured graduate research assistants this week and about three months ago.

Paul D'Anieri, dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, said such work in UF chemistry professor Alan Katritzky's lab is suspended indefinitely as procedures and research done there are reviewed.

William Properzio, UF's director of environmental health and safety, said use of the chemical involved in both the explosion this week and one in October also is being suspended.

"We're going to stop that now and may stop it forever, I don't know," Properzio said.

The second floor of Sisler Hall, where the laboratory is located, remained closed Friday, but the other three floors of the building were reopened to faculty and students for the first time since the blast.

Properzio said some of chemical involved in the explosion, sodium azide, remained in the area where the explosion happened.

An outside contractor is expected to remove the chemical Monday, he said, which coincides with UF's Martin Luther King Day holiday and would allow the building to reopen when classes resume Tuesday.

Properzio said the small amount of the substance means there is no risk for others to return in the meantime to the building's other floors, which house labs and offices.

"Even if it exploded, it wouldn't impact the floors above and below," Properzio said.

Best known as the chemical found in automobile airbags, sodium azide is highly toxic and can present an explosion risk when heated or shocked.

Properzio said the lab has used the chemical hundreds of times to produce another chemical for its research, but the explosions reveal an issue with safety.

"We've had two accidents. Obviously it's not being done safely," he said.

Katritzky declined comment. At UF since 1980, he directs UF's Center for Heterocyclic Componds and the Katritzky Group. The group typically includes more than 50 graduate and undergraduate students, post-doctoral and visiting researchers and support personnel, according to its website.

The graduate student hurt in this week's incident, Khanh Ha, was working with sodium azide in the lab when an explosion seriously injured his face, hand and body.

Ha remained hospitalized Friday. Another student, Mohamed Ibrahim, was working with the same chemical in October when a flask exploded and the shattered glass injured his face.

D'Anieri said a broad review is being done of the research being conducted in Katritzky's lab as well as other laboratories, along with the type of research, to ensure it's safe.

An investigation will determine whether the use of certain chemicals or specific practices needs to be changed, he said, with the goal of avoiding any accidents from happening.

"You can't have an attitude that this happens every now and again," D'Anieri said.

Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com. For more stories on the University of Florida, visit www.thecampussun.com.

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