Officials review lab fire

March 10, 2010, 1:06 a.m.

A fire at the Paul G. Allen Center for Integrated Systems last month raised questions about laboratory and chemical safety, but University officials and researchers now say adequate measures are in place to prevent future danger.

The small flash fire erupted in the annex of the Allen Center on Feb. 25, forcing the immediate evacuation of some 150 people and triggering a response by the Palo Alto Fire Department, the Stanford Department of Public Safety and Stanford Environmental Health and Safety officials.

Worried about the presence of hazardous chemicals in the center, first responders barricaded off parts of Serra Mall and Via Ortega. They reopened the streets approximately two hours later.

The fire started when researchers attempted to clean part of the lab’s complicated molecular beam epitaxy (MEB) equipment, on which chemical residue had accumulated that unexpectedly sparked into flame.

“The students were cleaning out the vacuum area and there was evidently a concentration of many different chemicals that just flared,” said Susan Minchall, a fire department spokesperson.

While the fire heightened fears of chemical hazards, officials said the incident was less catastrophic than it first appeared. Minchall, for one, pointed to the quick response by researchers in the lab, noting that the students “did everything they were supposed to do” by immediately pulling the fire alarm.

“I don’t think it did much damage,” she added, observing that the fire remained confined to a very small area. “It was kind of a unique situation.”

“It probably wasn’t much of a fire, more, a lot of smoke,” said Larry Gibbs, the associate vice provost for Environmental Health and Safety, in an interview immediately after the incident.

Gibbs this week said that, contrary to rumors, a separate chemical spill did not hit the Allen Center, which houses Stanford’s NanoFabrication Facility, the week of Feb. 25.

“There was one incident, not two,” Gibbs said, adding that allegations of an additional chemical spill originated from an erroneous interpretation of reports concerning the Feb. 25 fire and “are not accurate.”

Gibbs also emphasized that there has been “no increase in frequency” in health and safety accidents over the past month and that “these kind of laboratory incidents are actually quite rare at Stanford,” given the sheer volume of research conducted by students on a daily basis.

Additionally, Stanford has in place an extensive array of guidelines governing the handling of dangerous chemicals used in research, foremost among them the comprehensive Chemical Hygiene Plan (CHP) designed to “establish a written program that provides for and supports the procedures, equipment, personal protective equipment and work practices for protecting laboratory personnel from potential health hazards of using hazardous chemicals in the laboratory.”

The CHP requires everything from designating a laboratory supervisor (LS) to exercise responsibility for safety within his or her lab, to outlining procedures related to chemical labeling and hazardous waste management.

The plan supplements what Gibbs called “ongoing outreach regarding safety in laboratory operations” in an effort to ensure that dangerous chemicals are handled in a responsible manner.

Furthermore, researchers working in laboratories go through an extensive, individualized training process before being allowed to work with hazardous materials.

According to Todd Eberspacher, a facilities services manager and the head of health and safety training for the chemistry department, the process has three distinct steps: first, University-level training that all researchers go through together; second, more specific department-level training designed to familiarize researchers with the hazards unique to their line of work; and third, “group-specific training” narrowly tailored to fit the needs of each research group’s exact experimental method.

This last category of training is especially important, Eberspacher said, because it equips students and researchers with safety knowledge specifically related to their topic of research.

Overall, officials agree that incidents like February’s fire are exceedingly rare at Stanford — especially, as Gibbs remarked, “given the fact that there are over a thousand academic research laboratories at Stanford involved with a great diversity of research activities.”

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