sing a dirge for the unused adipic acid

I'm just wrapping a 70+ hour work week. Our offices and labs were moved this weekend.  The labs, machine shop, and clean room are bright and cheery with spectacular views of tree tops and mountains…perfect for creative work. Okay, the RF lab is a bit more like a bat cave, but it's much bigger than the previous location, with tons more storage space. 

I spent ten days in the clean room, carefully packing fibers into padded ESD bags. I was instructed to treat every widget in every cabinet as if it were a premature infant, and to gingerly place every rusted screw into plastic as if it were a warm isolette. I practically had to whisper. Of course, once move day came, crazed scientists were heaping these precious fibers and widgets onto filthy carts as if they were sandbags guarding against an imminent flood, and hoping for the best. 

I am exhausted. I need a vacation, a pedicure, and a cherry coke. 

I also need to rant. I have to get this off my chest, as it is making me crazy.

Have I mentioned that I'm the Safety Officer at my job? I drew the short straw because I took some safety classes during my years at JPL, and had a general idea that shit with the suffix -ethane will probably not react well to a lit match. So I print out all the MSDSheets, keep an inventory, update regulatory agencies with our inventories, and periodically walk through the labs and ask people to pick their crap up off the floor before someone trips and cracks their skull open on the concrete. Mostly I just make sure the eyewash is fresh and the first aid kits have full supplies of band-aids.

I'm also a secretary, the document review department, and up until recently, I was also the purchasing department, company librarian, marketing assistant, and a conference secretary. Such is the way with small companies. Everyone pitches in, everyone wears a half dozen hats. 

The Safety Officer hat is the ugliest one I wear. When I'm wearing that hat, I transform into something like Millhouse Van Houten with a Hall Monitor sash. I become a joke, a pain-in-the-ass, and suddenly, my usually open and affable tech staff become cagey and less likely to answer a straight question than a politician running for reelection in Illinois. Safety Officer = Enemy. Bureaucrat. Humorless killer of fun. 

Seriously, I don't get it. Reasonable questions are treated as accusations. Chemicals are hidden in nooks and crannies, I suppose out of fear that I will have them taken away, or make them fill out some sort of paperwork, or…I don't know what else. It's bananas. 

During the move I found epoxies that had expired the year I graduated from college, and when I moved them to the recycling bin, arguments broke out about whether or not they might still be used. 

Me: You haven't opened this box in a decade. It went bad seven years ago.

Scientist: Still, we could use it. 

Me: It went bad seven years ago. If you actually need this epoxy, I will buy you a new kit and it will be here the next morning. 

Scientist: But that would be a waste of money when we have this.


A horrible look of pain crossed his face as I placed it in my bin of chemicals to be picked up for recycling. It reminded me of hoarders I've seen on the news who look as if they've had an arm torn off when the health department comes in to remove hundreds of cats or stacks of mildewed newspapers. My scientists are perfectly reasonable about many things, but our chemical inventory and my insistence on keeping careful records of what we have, what we need, and when we need to recycle reduces them to crazy cat-lady status.

I found hydrofluoric acid stashed in the back of an epoxy fridge, a tank of deuterium carefully hidden behind a cart, and a few unopened, never used in the history of the lab, bottles of adipic acid. 

And you know what? I don't give a shit that they have these things. I really don't. Also, since I do the purchasing, I already know you have it. Why are you squirreling it away, hiding it?  I only want to get rid of the stuff we don't use and don't need so we can keep our status as a conditionally exempt small quantity generator. It makes the paperwork lighter. 

If you need it, I'll make sure you have it. I will take care of the mountains of paperwork, inform all the regulatory agencies, and you'll never know it. You'll just get your cylinder, tube, jar, bottle, or jug as fast as it can be delivered, and go about your merry way making science out of widgets and goo. 

So what's with the look of terror, the stuttering, the panic, and the defensive whine when I ask, "Are you using this adipic acid? We have three unopened bottles of it."

"WHAT? It is NOTHING! Look! You can use this to clean your pots and pans! It is harmless!" says my scientist.

First, I'm not putting adipic acid in my Circulon pots and pans. Second, I didn't ask whether or not it was harmless, harmful, explosive, toxic, a threat to the continuing rule of mankind, blah blah yawncakes. 

I just want to know if we keep ordering this shit because you don't know you already have some because you keep hiding it from me on a back shelf as if I'm the Chemical Grinch come to steal Corrosivemas. 

So two of the three bottles went into the recycling. All in all, I had three drums of complete horse shit taken away.  Expired epoxies, dirty acetone, countless half used bottles of goo used for projects that ended years ago. 

When the chemical transport and recycling team came to box up the things that were being moved or taken away, we talked about some of the worst jobs they had ever done. Sometimes it's the "home chemist" puttering around in their garages for fifty years while chemicals crystallize and become time-bombs. Streets get blocked off while hazmat teams shake their heads and remove unmarked barrels of ick. 

It reminded me of JPL founder Jack Parsons, blowing himself to smithereens at home, probably stoned on peyote, tinkering with rocket fuel. 

When the bottles and cylinders arrived at the new facility, I carefully wiped down the bottles, placed flammables in the huge steel cabinet, polished the fume hood and lined up the corrosives, put the epoxies in their refrigerators, and neatly laid out all the commonly used stuff in easy reach. The furniture movers wheeled the benches in, giving wide berth to the Scary-Looking Tubes of Certain Death. Cylinders were strapped into their earthquake-proof nooks, safety goggles unpacked, gloves, coats, and other personal protective gear laid out in the dressing rooms. 

Safety Officer is the worst part of my job, and the part I'm worst at. I hate having to tenderly negotiate through the weird hoarding nonsense, the "someday, we might possibly have a use for that thing we have never used and no one can remember why we ordered it" crap. There's a strange emotional tie to these substances that I don't get. We're not a poor lab, we're expanding. No one feels this way about empty boxes of Kim Wipes, old toner cartridges, or dried up sharpies. I can't find whatever empathy is required to help mourn the loss of the long-forgotten kit of glue. 

Should I sing a dirge? Perhaps play Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah? Throw a fistful of dirt on the box as I lower it into the recycling bin? Stop by the chemical recycling center and place a stone on the site in memory of the glue?

My grandfather had a similar mentality caused by depression-era fear of hunger. If half a box of Cheerios went stale, he'd put them on a cookie sheet and put them in the oven to crisp back up rather than toss them, even though he had no intention of eating them. Just to not "waste" them. Even though he didn't want them. The thought of tossing out "perfectly good food" was anathema. My grandmother would have to toss them when he wasn't looking. The same thing went for old gas caps, bits and pieces of cars long sold off, rusted screws. A shed full of "perfectly good" items that we could "possibly need someday." Perfectly good Cheerios. Perfectly good adipic acid. 

When my grandparents sold their home and moved into a condo, the shed full of "perfectly good" junk was hauled away, and no one ever desperately needed a gas cap for gas cap apocalypse that was never going to happen.

I have a strong feeling no one will ever work themselves up into a sweat over a desperate need for expired epoxy, either. 

6 thoughts on “sing a dirge for the unused adipic acid”

  1. I once volunteered for the task of cleaning out and organising several cabinets of chemicals for a science club. It all went well, until my heart suddenly jumped out of my throat, trying to run away and hide. In front of me, I had a five-litre glass bottle of picric acid, with crystal formations between the bottle and stopper. Eventually, the fire department’s hazmat team came around and very, very carfully carried it away.
    The scariest thing? I’d been using that lab for six months and the cabinet had rather heavy doors.

  2. Isn’t epoxy like fine wine? It gets better with age? 😉
    Seriously, though, shelf-life numbers are usually based on worst case storage conditions. If the product has been stored in nominal conditions, then the product life time may be significantly longer than the number printed on the package. Additionally, most manufacturers don’t guarantee a product’s performance if it’s used after the shelf-life number has expired, but the product may still be perfectly good. Thus, the real questions are what use will the product be put to, and whether it’s been stored in ideal conditions.
    As for Adipic Acid, no, you probably won’t put it in your kitchenware, but you probably have eaten it:
    On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to do that with a technical grade product (I’d want it to be food grade before I intentionally ate it.).
    And, who knows when your techies will want to make a batch of nylon! 😉
    Having worked in a technical environment for well over 25 years, I know that, as soon as you throw something out, you develop an immediate need for it. Furthermore, having to wait to obtain something, even over night, can put a significant dent in schedules.
    As for hiding stuff, well, some of that is intentional to keep questionable items from being confiscated. Some of it is to prevent the guy from the other lab from using all of your stock and not replenishing it (causing you to be out when you desperate need a bit of it). Some of it is from laziness (Put it where you last used it, rather than returning it to the stock cabinet.). Some of it is from absentmindedness. Some of it is packrattiness. Some of it just defies explanation. Each reason has it’s own causes, and must be dealt with individually (else mistrust is bred).
    Sometimes, it’s good to compromise with the techies, even though it goes against your training, just to build some confidence. Sometimes, it’s just not worth fighting the battle (e.g., “Playing the game”).
    On the other hand, out of all of the stuff you mentioned, that quantity of Hydrofluoric Acid would be the only thing that really worried me. That stuff can be deadly if a bit is splashed on someone (Something about upsetting the Calcium/Sodium/Potassium balance in the bloodstream, leading to cardiac arrest.). Thus, it should be stored in the proper location, and a quantity of Calcium Gluconate should be kept in an appropriate location, and the safety/medical team should be trained to administer it.
    Now, if you want some real fun, consider that some industrial/lab processes are VERY dependent upon dopant quantity levels (e.g., 1E-8 or less!). Thus, sometimes, it’s worth keeping a quantity of expired product around, since it’s been proven to not have (or to have) any detrimental contaminants (versus new product, which is unproven). Some of this, of course, depends on the exact work that your lab/industry does. Semiconductor fabrication is particularly sensitive to this, as was certain segments of industry dealing with photoconductors (Oh, the stories I could tell!).
    As for the home lab scenario, most home chemists (and, I STRONGLY differentiate between a home chemist and a meth cooker!) are quite responsible. Sure, there are horror stories, but that’s true with any
    industrial/lab/educational setting, too. Picric Acid has traditionally
    been one of the worst offenders, although there are many other materials, most of which form explosive peroxides via aging, that are of concern, too
    (Oh, the stories I could tell here, too! Let me just say, from personal experience, that Nitroglycerine is a thick, yellow, oily liquid!!!).
    For the most part, scientists/engineers/technicians/etc. appreciate the work the safety officer does. But, part of the trick is to work with them,
    and to accommodate some of their quirks, in the interest of fostering a better working relationship (and, truly squashing the real safety hazards).

  3. Nightmare duty, for sure–I can relate.
    Back in the day, I was the safety officer for a construction company. Sounds exciting, yes? I’ll just say that enforcing safety standards on 200 construction workers/neanderthals added a whole new dimension to normal day-to-day self-preservation in my life.

  4. Dave’s got it right, including the HF (I hate the bone dissolving part). Sometimes you have a brilliant idea that needs expired epoxy, adipic acid, and dueterium. Or you are in the lab at 3 AM, your synthesis is going well, you just need to add 50 mls of adipic acid, there is only 20 left, and your safety office threw out the other bottles!
    Some of the scientists may also have Safety Officer “Baggage”. They have had bad past history with safety officers, and are reacting to you, based on how someone else treated them in the past. At my company, for process control we assigned our own number to all chemicals, with a different number for every vendor (at least 3 reagent grade ethanols with the same purity). This morphed into the catch-all number for regulating all chemicals, including for safety. The MSDS was not enough, you had to label every container with this number also. The number grew to be applied to things not used in manufacturing, and then to things that were not in the lab. It was a safety violation not to have labeled your bottle of white board eraser with the process control #. Even if you kept the MSDS for it next to the white board. We hid all the white board eraser during the safety inspection. We really almost labeled the soap at the sink next to the coffee machine.
    So, like many relationships, you must slowly establish trust, and there must be some compromise. Proving that if you take their old chemicals, they get shiny new ones. Even giving them the new ones first. Letting them keep 2 month expired epoxy, but not 6 month expired epoxy. And then someday, they will they look back fondly at the times when you were their safety officer. Or maybe not.

  5. Oh do I ever understand where you are coming from, but if you want something really scary, try doing a safety audit and a rural high school chem lab.
    The first year I did this I found TWO labs that had bottles crystallized Picric Acid. One bottle was completely crystallized. The police bomb squad disposed of that one. The current chemistry teacher didn’t even know it was there.

  6. Dave’s got it right, including the HF (I hate the bone dissolving part). Sometimes you have a brilliant idea that needs expired epoxy, adipic acid, and dueterium.Thanks for more posting.

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