In the dusty cabinet something lurks
July 12, 2019 5:57 AM   Subscribe

 
He hasn't done a new one in several years, but I highly recommend his hilarious Things I Will Not Work With category on that blog.
posted by Quindar Beep at 6:08 AM on July 12 [13 favorites]


I am so glad that psychophysics labs don't accumulate stuff like that. We accumulate old weird apparatus, but nothing that dangerous.

Then again, you can tell how long someone has been faculty by the vintage of the computers squirreled away in dark corners of their lab space.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 6:27 AM on July 12 [6 favorites]


My first summer in college I got job helping out in a chemistry lab at a university back in my hometown, thanks to being best friends with the professor's son. They were doing some organometallic synthesis (this, I think). The reaction required significant amounts of cyanide and the stuff they had to use was old, caked, and approaching the consistency of concrete. My job was to chisel cyanide out of glass jars using a scoopula and a hammer.
posted by exogenous at 6:29 AM on July 12 [5 favorites]


Industrial med-chem labs tend to be a little less lively for that kind of thing, for several reasons. We’re willing to spend more money

...Able to spend more money, really.

But the main unsuitable object that I've encountered was ice cream. I had to do a survey of all the freezer space in a building and, down amongst the samples, I found a couple of probably three-gallon, partially consumed tubs of ice cream. We did eventually figure out whose they were and get them removed.

The really serious situation was actually when someone stole a bunch of expensive microscope optics, presumably to sell on eBay. (There's a big secondary market for things like that, especially for older equipment.) Unfortunately, we had enough security precautions to make it seem likely that the person who took them was on staff (rather than a roving opportunist - we'd had some losses to those) but not enough security to figure out who. I personally would rather have had the possibility that it was a random person rather than the certainty that it was someone who used the lab.
posted by Frowner at 6:36 AM on July 12 [9 favorites]


Ah yes, that chilling moment when you pick up an old canister of diethyl ether and hear something solid rattling around ... And the moment of relief when you realize it's still pretty full and all you're hearing is a broken pipette tip.
posted by solotoro at 6:58 AM on July 12 [4 favorites]


i used to work in a Chemistry lab building....one day the fire alarm went off. That was a very speedy and efficient evacuation.
posted by thelonius at 7:17 AM on July 12 [13 favorites]


I did chemistry at uni, one day we were all working in the UG teaching lab and a PG didn't properly tie off a rubber hose he had feeding in to an experiment in a fume cupboard. It popped off leaving a canister of HCl blasting directly into the lab. That whole walk don't run thing goes out of the window at times.
posted by biffa at 7:31 AM on July 12 [10 favorites]


Thirty or forty years ago, the chair of my department was a high pressure/temperature mineralogist who did mineral precipitation experiments in little pressurized gold capsules. Unbeknownst to anyone else, he saved the gold capsules after each experiment and placed them in a safe in his laboratory. After he passed away suddenly, the department was cleaning out his lab and found a safe full of gold capsules. So they waited until the price of gold reached a nice high and sold it off, which funded the hiring of several new professors.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 7:32 AM on July 12 [34 favorites]


Our grammar school was over 300 years old and had a pint crock of mercury labelled ☿
posted by scruss at 7:33 AM on July 12 [41 favorites]


And for once, read the comments!
posted by metahacker at 7:33 AM on July 12 [11 favorites]


In high school I was a science aide my senior year, and one of the long-term tasks I had was to go through the long-neglected chemical room and make MSDS sheets for every single thing in there. I don't think I found anything particularly dangerous but there were lots of large brown glass containers with barely readable labels and rusted caps which, on looking up, were a nitrogen compound of some sort with 'explosive' being a major characteristic. I put the bottles down very carefully.
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:26 AM on July 12 [2 favorites]


Oh, boy. *rubs hands* I work in a 80-year-old biology building in a dusty basement. My time has come.

As with Frowner, the most horrifying things I've found lying around in my lab are food-related. We recently inherited and cleaned out some old freezers (among other things) belonging to a professor who is now retiring, and among other items, we found a few big things of ground meat labeled "big pig ridge", as well as a set of bananas with a peeling grocery label listing them to have been purchased eight years prior. We also found a large number of antique equipment items dating back to the 1950s, which I believe we packed up and sent to surplus so they could deal with them. The professor in question has also squirreled jars of pickled lizards in varying sizes around my entire floor, and whether or not he chooses to give those up, I expect the denizens of the basement to be finding unexpected lizards in nooks and crannies for some time to come.

Compound-wise, no one ever throws anything away either. The last time we did a clean-up of our wet lab, we found a wide variety of compounds expired for decades. At one point, a vole bit my colleague, and we went to the first aid kit to treat the injury... and found it and all its contents had been expired for over a decade.

When I leave, I will probably bequeath a large bottle of 2-mercaptoacetate, which is a fatty acid metabolism blocker I used to work with and also one of the foulest-smelling compounds I have ever had the misfortune of encountering. The scent is capable of permeating through a sealed glass bottle, and is detectable at dilutions of a few hundred microliters in 75mL while frozen in 1mL aliquots. I'm not entirely sure how we dispose of it, and I'm cheerfully fine with making some poor fucker in fifteen years figure it out.

Cheap as shit, too. I think we paid something like $20 for that bottle.
posted by sciatrix at 8:27 AM on July 12 [29 favorites]


I always wondered what the shipping warehouses of chemical supply companies are like.
posted by ardgedee at 8:41 AM on July 12


Oh, the joys of the inherited lab clean-out! We just had a major renovation of our science building, which meant cleaning out the lab that my colleague and I inherited from two old-timers (in both longevity and approach...). My favorite was coming across a bottle of DDT, just hanging out on the shelf next to an old, old bottle of dextrose. Less....fun...were the just completely unlabeled bottles, or the one that was both unlabeled and completely BROKEN so that some kind of reagent was all over the cabinet. Least fun of ALL, though, was not anything related to old materials. See, my colleague teaches anatomy and physiology, and gets animal parts from our local meat processing facility for dissections, which he stores in the freezer. At one point, the workers decided to cut power to the room where his freezer was, without notifying anyone. Right before a long weekend. (They ended up having to purchase a new freezer, because no amount of bleach actually could get rid of the smell).


The fortuitous thing is, THIS year is the year we're being audited for lab safety, and the system environmental health specialist was highly impressed at our compact and property stored chemical supply area. We are thanking our lucky stars this all is happening post-renovation....
posted by TheFantasticNumberFour at 8:44 AM on July 12 [4 favorites]


oh the comments

LOLz practical jokah
and
OHSHA bye bye
and
DEATH
and
ALMONDLICIOUS
posted by lalochezia at 8:59 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


Thirty years ago I was one of the people tasked with going through CARTS full of random bottles from labs being cleaned out, in a pharma research facility. This was our backup task to work on, whenever we were caught up on our real work. My coworker and I were both just clerical staffers, not chemists, and the bottles arrived faster than we could inventory them even if we had worked them full time. Every time someone retired there would be another storage closet worth of bottles. They had been arriving like that for years, and we would pack them as tightly as possible into the most inaccessible storage spaces under our department's control. (Accessible spaces were used for things that someone could actually identify.) We made no attempt to track which bottle came from where; the provenance of them was not our concern, we just had to get them out of the hallway.

Whenever we had a quiet week we'd pull out a box at random, and try to identify the things.

Some had no labels at all because the label adhesive had turned to dust years ago. Those would go straight to the hazardous waste, and from there, god only know what was done with them.

Some were labeled with numbers that referenced old lab notebooks. The lab notebooks were archived and we'd pull the microfilm and sometimes it would tell us what it was, maybe a structure or a catalog number. Some just had structures on the labels. Structures would go to a chemist down the hall who would put the structure into the computer, which would tell us the catalog number if it was a known thing, and give it a new catalog number if it was new.

The things we kept, well, we'd put a barcode on them and find them a spot in the accessible spaces, and make a notation in the computer, of where it was stored.

But the thing that always added excitement to our day would be when we looked up the info on the label and realized we've found large quantities of drugs that were on the federal drug schedule. It would be like, "Wow, here is 10 grams of PCP that's been sitting uncatalogued in an unsecured closet since before we were born, and no one knows what lab it came from or how long it has been here. Anyone could have taken it and we'd never know." Security through obscurity. We sent those to the incinerator and pretended we never saw them.

Some years after I left that job, that facility closed down. I wonder what happened to all those mystery bottles?

Looking back on if now, as an older and wiser person, I wonder WHAT THE FUCK management was thinking? Why not send all of it to hazardous waste, instantly? Or if you do want to have it sorted through, why not get someone who knows something about chemicals, and stay on top of it, instead of letting it age for decades like that? I can still smell the weird smell of decaying labels on poorly sealed bottles with random chemicals in them. I wonder if this job contributed to my current health issues? Most of it was probably harmless and the quantities were small, but I bet there were a few things I handled that were pretty dangerous.
posted by elizilla at 9:22 AM on July 12 [9 favorites]


Oh, this brings back memories.

There was one point when I was doing my degree that...something...in an old jar got shaken up and they had to evacuate one of our chemistry rooms. (Old conservation techniques were apparently Quite Something.) One of my lecturers entirely forewent any PPE when he went in to try and...fix it? I don't even know, but he was very chill about it and I assume he'll outlive us all at this point.

Fast forward to a few years later when I inherited a cabinet full of chemicals in my first job, many of which had been there since the 80's. We finally got the money to get them disposed of, so it was my job to go through and make a list of everything to send to the council hazardous chemical pickup so they knew what to expect. Some highlights:

-- a jar of gold dust that had been purchased in Birmingham early in the 20th century. It had a typewritten label, was sizable, and was absolutely beautiful. I believe it is still at my old job, even though I was working in waterlogged organics conservation and never gilded anything ever. I still think warmly of it as one of my best Old Dusty Museum Finds.

-- A package of what looked like cigarette filters, dated to about 1985. It was amyl nitrate. I got to explain a) why I was laughing so hard and b) what gay party drugs are to my co-worker, it was great.

-- a jar of picric acid. This one got me a phone call from the poor guy who was coming to pick all this up. He asked if it was solid or liquid. It was liquid. "Oh, good," he said. "If it was solid I would've had to call in the bomb squad."
I spent a very edifying several hours with my list and wikipedia after that phone call.
(I still have no idea what the picric acid was for.)
posted by kalimac at 9:48 AM on July 12 [8 favorites]


Almost 50 years ago my dad found a jar of dried picric acid on a shelf in his lab. They evacuated the building and called emergency services. It was a party atmosphere, and he was quoted in the local paper: "I had a blast!"
posted by Midnight Skulker at 9:58 AM on July 12 [7 favorites]


I've cleaned out a few fridges and stockrooms. I've dealt with jars of yellow crystals (thankfully under solvent) helpfully labelled "picric" and nothing else. We've had the kg masses of sodium to deal with. Cleaning up the organometallic stations were always interesting experiences.

The worst for me were the things the old pesticide residue and PCB/aroclor mixtures we'd held on to for a decade after that method had been retired. We're now dealing with disposing old chlorodioxins/furans (or PCDD/Fs to use the modern terms for them). In all cases even the chemical disposal companies don't want them. So It costs a lot more and we have to store them somehow while our OSH groups keeps writing us up for having them every six months or so.

Chemical warfare agents and their simulants are their own special brand of fun to deal with as well, and not just from a disposal point of view. For nearly a decade I was never sure if I was going to get through airport security in less than a hour or not. TBF I only got detained a couple of times and the agents were always nice about it.
posted by bonehead at 10:00 AM on July 12 [6 favorites]


Or if you do want to have it sorted through, why not get someone who knows something about chemicals, and stay on top of it, instead of letting it age for decades like that?

Short answer, now most places do (and this is one thing the GHS/WHMIS/ISO lab standards are for), but previously almost always because of money. Money to pay the person to sort through them, money to pay for disposal. Easier to put it at the back of a lab cupboard and let someone else deal with it later. I've seen this in labs bat also too often at industrial sites when the qualities are drums rather than flasks or bottle. Of course, we're usually getting these 20 page manifests when the warehouse is on fire.
posted by bonehead at 10:07 AM on July 12 [2 favorites]


When I was in middle school, I was a lab assistant for the science classes, which meant I got access to the chemical closet. Swanson was built in 1939, and some of the oldest bottles looked like they could date from then, ancient vitrines with glass stopper tops. Contents included a big jar of mercury, various alkali metals sitting under oil in unsealed containers... a delightful treasure trove.

I have heard, though I have not confirmed it, that a good many years after I left, a new science teacher or administrator came into the lab, took one look at the closet, said "oh shit" and the hazardous materials team was called in. Apparently the new rebuilt chemical closet is much duller.
posted by tavella at 10:31 AM on July 12 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: At one point, a vole bit my colleague.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:37 AM on July 12 [17 favorites]


As a Chemistry naif, I love how most of these comments, both here are in the links, go something along the lines of

"So I found an old glass bottle that was labelled Schmerolous Schmoxide, and when I looked closer, I noticed that the brown glass had turned slightly green, and there was DUST all over the place. You can imagine the phone calls I got over that one."

It lets me play a game I call "Explosive or Hallucinogen?"
posted by Rock Steady at 10:40 AM on July 12 [28 favorites]


And for once, read the comments!

Like this one?

Bottles of substituted nitrosamines from a lab I took over in Boston. Rumor had it the scientist generating them died of cancer.
Then there was a bottle of kidney and gallstones for extracting cholesterol out of them. Made nice earrings for my Pharmacist sister out of them.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:40 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


bonehead, yeah very true. But what I would also say is that they think it's expensive to dispose of now, just wait. The price of disposal is only going up.
posted by elizilla at 10:41 AM on July 12


It lets me play a game I call "Explosive or Hallucinogen?"

Fair cop.

Probably the most recent headache we had was disposing of an old Coluter Counter (used for measuring the sizes of tiny particles in liquid) that had around 10 kg of liquid mercury in it---something like a litre and a half in a glass container, inside the instrument. I'm still not 100% convinced that the great mercury purges of the mid 2000s were worth the trouble, especially for sealed instruments. We had to get rid of a really nice lab thermometer too.
posted by bonehead at 11:16 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


Coluter Counter (used for measuring the sizes of tiny particles in liquid) that had around 10 kg of liquid mercury in it

WTF?
posted by mr_roboto at 12:42 PM on July 12


Well mercury is heavy so it doesn't take that much volume to make 10kg.

I'm still not 100% convinced that the great mercury purges of the mid 2000s were worth the trouble, especially for sealed instruments. We had to get rid of a really nice lab thermometer too.

I wouldn't be except for all the stories in here about finding long-ago escaped mercury just lying around on (or in) the floor.
posted by atoxyl at 12:45 PM on July 12


I haven't done enough lab work to have any similar experiences. I have heard of two stories - a clinic founded in the 1920s whose very senior physician passed away leaving his medical school cadaver in the back closet. Also a pharmacy with a 1kg block of cocaine shy just few grams taken to prepare anesthetic solutions.
posted by Emmy Noether at 12:59 PM on July 12


I am nearly 45 years old and I still remember clearly the transcendent joy my high school classmates and I felt when the chemistry teacher found an old jar of picric acid collecting dust in the lab. They evacuated the school and called the bomb squad and it was absolutely the coolest thing that had ever happened to us in our young lives.
posted by jesourie at 1:23 PM on July 12 [7 favorites]


This bring back memories of all the frightening finds when I was doing research. Old chemicals. Ancient pesticides. Unidentifiable biological specimens in the -80° chest freezers and the -40° walk ins. The mixed waste chemical containers under the fume hoods. The time I opened up an ancient chemical storage cabinet in a dusty, unused prep lab, only to have the shelves collapse and unknown bottles of stuff come smashing to the floor at my feet. That resulted in a building evacuation. Ugh.

I don't work with chemicals anymore.
posted by fimbulvetr at 1:42 PM on July 12


I wouldn't be except for all the stories in here about finding long-ago escaped mercury just lying around on (or in) the floor.

Hell, my younger roommate, who is in her early 20s, found a broken mercury thermometer when she was a kid that had been found in the school her mother taught at. She was playing with the mercury in total glee before her older brother came into the room and sounded the alarm. It's surprisingly common to find toxic stuff lying around, and personally I think it's better to find it when actively looking for it than by accident.

On the other hand, my institution is the one that belatedly noticed it was missing about a hundred brains a few years back, and eventually worked out that they had been disposed of in somewhat mysterious circumstances twelve years prior by an irritated animal resources center director who had requested the responsible faculty member move them. So maybe Texas is just unusually awful.
posted by sciatrix at 1:53 PM on July 12 [2 favorites]



On the other hand, my institution is the one that belatedly noticed it was missing about a hundred brains a few years back, ...... So maybe Texas is just unusually awful.


sorry but texas is missing way more than a hundred brains
posted by lalochezia at 2:42 PM on July 12 [15 favorites]


In junior high around 1970 one of our science classes had a really cool glass barometer with around a pint of mercury in it. Extremely heavy is all I remember, but it was quite a lot of mercury.

One of the class blockheads--he would have said "tough guys"--picked it up and spun it around his head. Of course, it broke, showering mercury around the room. The teacher was ... disappointed. We all got to scoop it up with sheets of paper and pour it into a beaker. I assume today they would demolish the school.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 10:07 PM on July 12 [4 favorites]


I think my dad has a little jar of mercury in his workshop in the basement. It’s about the size of a small pill bottle. It’s astonishingly heavy.
I think it has a cork stopper. I assume? hope? that cork can contain mercury vapor. I mean, store in a cool place, but...
posted by Mister Moofoo at 6:21 PM on July 13 [1 favorite]


Dr Zamboni used to work in a lab with old parquet flooring. Some time after she left, they finally renovated, and found a staggering amount of mercury that had fallen on the floor and accumulated in the gaps between the blocks. Fun!
posted by zamboni at 6:23 AM on July 15 [3 favorites]


Oh boy, the inherited lab space. Several people occupied my current lab before it was bequeathed to me, and they all left their unwanted items behind. I'm coming up on two years in this position now, and I just now have a handle on the inventory of that room, and we've generally dealt without the trash. Things we found in the lab include:

*lots of broken glass under various shelves
*rusty razor blades in desk drawers
*mystery chemical dried up in a beaker, that turned out to be a water tracing dye, which we found out when we went to wash the beaker and all the pipes downstream of the sink filled with green (this was not my doing, I turned the beaker over to the person-that-handles-lab-waste)
*someone's personal medical waste (syringes)
*the very first thing we found was a raccoon baculum in the desk
*a very dusty guide to the scarabs of Africa, in Portuguese
*moth nuggets

In my grad school lab, there was a collection of totally unlabelled plastic tubes and jars sitting in the fume hood, containing... something. They were in a plastic grocery bag. The grocery bag was labelled. With a post-it note. The post-it note said "Don't know."
posted by pemberkins at 11:39 AM on July 15 [7 favorites]


Last time I was cleaning out our lab freezers, I found (in addition to all the orangutan urine that I expected to be there):

- Several test tubes full of my supervisor's urine from throughout her pregnancy
- Several test tubes of my supervisor's PhD advisor's urine (he's currently the chair of a very important department)
- A test tube with pieces of the cheek pad of several male orangutans
- A styrofoam container with several whole chimpanzee feet inside, and a certificate saying they cannot confirm the chimpanzees from whom these feet were derived did not have AIDS.

Fortunately, I knew to whom the chimpanzee feet really SHOULD belong and was able to get him to come pick them up and I didn't have to explain to Environmental Health and Safety why we had chimpanzee feet that maybe had AIDS in a styrofoam box in our freezer.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:35 PM on July 15 [15 favorites]


Several test tubes full of my supervisor's urine

I do not have a word to describe the emotion I'm currently experiencing, caused by the knowledge that I'm *NOT* the only person who has someone else's leftover personal medical something stored in the lab.
posted by pemberkins at 2:45 PM on July 15 [3 favorites]


....and I thought the coffee cup left unattended so long that it acquired an active maggot infestation was bad.

nope nope nope nope nope

NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE
posted by sciatrix at 2:51 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]


A kiddie pool full of mercury that had been sitting open on the floor of a storage room for many, many, years....
posted by BlueDuke at 3:47 PM on July 15


MetaFilter: in addition to all the orangutan urine that I expected to be there.
posted by scruss at 6:51 PM on July 15 [4 favorites]


- Several test tubes full of my supervisor's urine from throughout her pregnancy
- Several test tubes of my supervisor's PhD advisor's urine (he's currently the chair of a very important department)


At this point I can only assume you took the logical course of action. Fill up a test tube and add it in there. Can't break academic tradition.
posted by biogeo at 3:28 PM on July 16 [3 favorites]


At this point I can only assume you took the logical course of action. Fill up a test tube and add it in there. Can't break academic tradition.

And then, I can only assume, cross-post it to the qualifying exams question.
posted by pemberkins at 6:53 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


When I was in school I had a summer job doing organic analytical chemistry for NIOSH in Cincinnati. The facility had 4 floors - the first three were for NIOSH, but the top floor was an FDA lab. The rumor was that it was a bacteriology lab, but no one knew for sure, because no one was ever allowed on the 4th floor.

The next summer the FDA decamped for Maryland, I think, and gave the floor to NIOSH. Everyone went upstairs, some for the first time in 20 or 30 year careers, to check out the space. Every lab was completely empty. The hoods were turned off, the benches were completely clean, even the filing cabinets were empty. There was not a single petri dish or a test tube.

Then we came to a weird door that to me looked like a hatch to a submarine. The room was filled with perforated metal racks filled with every possible type of glassware. It all looked clean - like shiny clean. My supervisor peered through the door, but didn't enter. I said "look at all this glassware we can take for our lab." He then said "are you sure you want to be in there?" I asked why. He said you're inside a walk-in autoclave, son.

I didn't get ebola or smallpox, but I never knew exactly what they were doing up there. Also, all of that glassware was disposed of, no one dared use it.
posted by codex99 at 2:07 PM on July 17 [5 favorites]


Short answer... almost always because of money...Easier to put it at the back of a lab cupboard and let someone else deal with it later.

I've heard of a similar situation, Big Companies maintaining warehouses stuffed with old CRT monitors and TVs. Can't afford the fees associated with legal disposal, maybe next year.
posted by Rash at 9:18 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


Mercury? We used to steal it and sneak it home from the school lab inside a Bic ballpoint pen with the innards removed and the holes sealed with Blu Tack.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 2:01 AM on July 31


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