Stanford University

Water? Hydrogen Peroxide? Improper Labeling Causes Injury

What happened?

While preparing a routine dilution of formamide, a researcher believed they mistakenly used hydrogen peroxide instead of water. This caused an unexpected chemical reaction, overpressurization, and rupture of a glass bottle resulting in lacerations on one arm and hand.

Aided by a colleague who heard the event from next door, the researcher immediately used the safety shower to thoroughly flush their skin of potential contaminants, and then was escorted by their colleague to seek emergency medical care.

This incident illustrates the importance of proper labeling in the research laboratory environment.

What was the cause of the incident?

  • Unlabeled containers
    During experiment preparation, a bottle of water and another similar-looking bottle of 30% hydrogen peroxide were both briefly not labeled. Most likely, the bottles were misidentified and then mis-labeled.

    • The researcher concluded that as a result, hydrogen peroxide, rather than water, was mistakenly used to dilute formamide.
  • Mixing of formamide and hydrogen peroxide is known to react violently, possibly resulting in rapid release of gases, which likely explains the immediate overpressurization and failure of the glass bottle.1
  • Just prior to the incident, the researcher removed their lab coat after stepping away from the bench, increasing bodily exposure to potential hazards.

1 Pohanish, R.P.; Greene, S.A. “Formamide” Wiley Guide to Chemical Incompatibilities, Third Edition. 2009, 504.

What went right?

After the event, the researcher immediately:

  • Used the safety shower with help from a colleague to flush skin of potential chemical contamination
  • Sought emergency medical care

What should have been done differently?

  1. Properly Label All Containers, Including Water
    • Label all chemical and reagent bottles, including water.
    • Clearly label containers in English (no abbreviations or chemical formulas).
  2. Wear Proper Personal Protective Equipment
    Wear appropriate PPE whenever at risk for exposure to hazardous materials or physical hazards. At minimum, keep your lab coat and eye protection on until all benchtop work is completed.

How can incidents like this be prevented?

  1. Hydrogen Peroxide Use:
    In contrast to hydrogen peroxide used in most households at dilute concentrations (~3%), research grades of peroxide (often 30 – 90%) pose much greater corrosivity and reactivity hazards. As with all hazardous chemicals, be sure to review the safety data sheet (SDS) to be aware of potential risks and to identify relevant work practices and precautions.

  2. Emergency Response:
    The group’s awareness of emergency procedures helped minimize severity of incurred injuries. This example serves as a good reminder to:

    • Periodically review emergency procedures with lab personnel.
    • Keep emergency access points clear of obstructions, including but not limited to emergency shower/eyewash, fire extinguishers, and alarm pull stations.

For details on laboratory emergency response, refer to:

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