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Beta Mercaptoethanol In Use. Dr. John, Stay Far, Far Away!

“Beta Mercaptoethanol In Use. Dr. John, Stay Far, Far Away!” featured in Incidents, Accidents, and Near Misses in Laboratory Research, Volume 2, tells a real-life story about what can happen when safety procedures aren’t followed in a lab decommissioning. Read on to learn what happens:

Dr. John had walked up to my cubicle “Lucy, can you help me figure something out? Once in a while, I don’t feel so good after work. Kind of sneezy and nauseous at the same time. I felt that way last night again.”

I looked up from my paperwork. I was filling out the final round of paperwork for a Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) permit. That was part of my job as a consulting safety officer. My client was setting up another new lab in Kendall Square. Even though Kendall Square was getting really cramped with biotech companies, my client wanted to stay because, in their CEO’s words, “it’s where the action is.”

Since they were setting up a new lab and a new pH system, they needed to file a new permit. A big part of my job was to make sure that all the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed. A permit delay is a delay in the lab, which is a delay in the research, which is what nobody wants.

“How long have you been experiencing discomfort?” I asked.

“It started last night but ended at some point during the night,” Dr. John reported.

“Hm. Let’s see if there is any possibility that something from work is causing this. Before I start, I want to make sure that you know that I am not doing a medical diagnosis, and I’m not going to recommend any medical treatment.

What I am going to do is use some job safety analysis techniques to try to figure out if there’s anything here at work that would be the cause. If you need medical attention or advice, you should see your own doctor or an occupational health physician.”

“Okay,” replied Dr. John, “I appreciate anything you can do to help me figure out what’s going on.”


“So, Dr. John, tell me what happened yesterday, last night, and this morning,” I asked as I started my investigation. Sometimes I have to play detective so I started looking for clues.

“Yesterday was pretty routine,” Dr. John began. “Just the usual analyses in the laser lab. [Editor’s note: the specifics of the technology and analyses are suppressed to protect the client and employee confidentiality.]I finished work and drove home to Lexington. We had a nice dinner, and I settled in to watch The Big Bang Theory with the kids. I started feeling crummy right around the time Sheldon woke up Leonard to do an emergency disaster drill per the Roommate Agreement.”

“Can you tell me more?” I probed.

“I had a few symptoms. Allergy-like symptoms like a runny nose, an annoying cough, a headache, and sometimes a little nausea. This has been happening to me for a while. Seems like every Thursday recently but it always passes in an hour or so. Last month, I even went to see an allergist but he couldn’t figure anything out.”

“That’s interesting that the allergist couldn’t find anything.”

Yah. It’s a bit of a mystery. The same thing happened last night. I’m starting to wonder if it’s something at work. I know that BME bothers me, but everyone is making stock solutions in the fume hood now, and I haven’t smelled any in the lab in a while”

“I think we should go to your laser lab to see if there are any clues over there.”I followed Dr. John out of the office area and over to the lab area. We put on laser safety glasses, lab coats, and gloves before we entered the lab area. We walked into Dr. John’s lab.


We walked next door. Sure enough, Lorna was in there prepping to run her samples next week. I asked her about her process. “Well,” said Lorna, “I usually run samples once a week, on Thursdays. I do use BME on the chip, but only about 3 L (microliter or one cubic millimeter) for each run.” She explained that she conducts this work in a biosafety cabinet. Since it was used at such a low volume, the distinguishing odor was detectable, but it wasn’t too overwhelming and quickly dissipated.

Knowing that a biosafety cabinet recirculates air back into the lab after it passes through a HEPA filter, I called Charlie, the company’s engineer, and jack-of-all-trades, on my cell phone. “Charlie, can you come over to Lorna’s lab? Maybe you can help us figure something out. We are looking into the possibility of someone having a reaction to the chemical BME. We think some BME might be migrating from Lorna’s lab into Dr. John’s lab through a ceiling vent.”

“Sounds nasty. I’ll be right up.” Charlie was a good man. He would drop everything for his scientists. When Charlie arrived in the lab, we asked him where the ceiling vent exhausted.

“There’s a single air handler that services all the labs. The main lab gets 100% fresh air supplied. Oh, wait. The laser labs were added on later and have their own system. These three labs share recycled air, so that must be how the BME is getting from Lorna’s lab over to Dr. John’s. “That’s it, Charlie!” exclaimed Dr. John.

“Absolutely brilliant.”


Because this was a workplace issue and the company was very diligent about their employee’s safety, we called in a very experienced Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) to take air samples. He discovered that the BME levels were extremely low. It turned out that Dr. John was hypersensitive to BME, much more so than his colleagues who were annoyed by the stink but didn’t have the same allergic reaction.

To help Dr. John and deal with the workplace hazard, we implemented several new lab safety procedures:

• The lab reengineered its set-up procedures to insure that BME would only be used in a chemical fume hood where 100% of the exhaust is vented to the outside.

• Dr. John had to be notified any time BME was being used so he could avoid the lab area. He was also given strict instructions to contact his safety officer and occupational health if he felt any of the same symptoms coming on.

• Charlie made a sign for Lorna to put up whenever she was using BME:



Facility decommissioning entails many line items of work. Safety Partners will help determine what level of decommissioning you need by reviewing lease terms and conditions, assessing hazardous materials used, observing your facility operations and building conditions, and discussing appropriate liability protection. We have established 2 tiers of this service, offerings can be customized to fit your lab and organization’s needs.

For additional information about safety with lab decommissioning, visit our page here or email [email protected].

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