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How Not to Do It

How Not to Do It: More Diethyl Ether (Now With Extra Hardware)

Man, have things changed since I was in grad school. We used to pour all kinds of horrible things down the drain – mind you, this was a good twenty years ago. But you can’t do that now, can you?
A respected University of Washington pharmacology professor became a felon Wednesday when he acknowledged dumping a flammable substance down a laboratory sink and then trying to conceal his actions.
Daniel Storm, 62, pleaded guilty in federal court to violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act by flushing about four liters of the solvent ethyl ether. He faces a maximum five years in prison and a $250,000 fine when sentenced June 18, although prosecutors have recommended probation under the terms of a plea agreement.

Well, everywhere I’ve worked, the safety officers have tried to put the fear of RCRA (“rick-rah”) into us, and by gosh, it looks like they may have had a point. Turns out that Prof. Storm’s lab had several elderly containers of ether which turned up in a lab inspection, and he decided to get out of paying the $15,000 hazardous waste disposal bill. So he decided to take matters into his own hands.
And how: he went after the metal ether cans with an ax, which means that he was lucky not to blow himself up. (A stray spark from the metal could have done the trick, and who knows how much peroxide was in the stuff, for that matter). Why the Monty Python lumberjack routine? Well, the lids were too tight, and according to Prof. Strong, the ax just happened to be handy. (How many times have the police heard that old excuse, eh?) Yep, you can’t pour ether down the sink like we used to, and you can’t chop open the stuff with an ax like we. . .well, actually, we never used to do that. No one ever has, most likely.
What really ripped it was when he went on to fake paperwork from a nonexistant waste disposal company to make it look as if the ether had been properly hauled away. No, if you haven’t clicked on that link yet, you’ll have to take my word that I’m not making this up as I go along. But you get the impression that Professor Strong sure was. Makes you wonder if he had been exposed to too many fumes. A spokeswoman for the school says that she’s unware of any similar incidents there, and I’ll bet she’s telling the truth. No, I’ve seen some stupid things done with diethyl ether, but this one threatens to retire the trophy.

27 comments on “How Not to Do It: More Diethyl Ether (Now With Extra Hardware)”

  1. Chrispy says:

    You have to give the guy credit for admitting to it.
    If I was subsisting on grants and the University wanted me to pay $15k to hazmat people to remove some old ether I’d probably dispose of it, too. But not down the sink! I always thought the University method was to “clean the hood” with it.

  2. quaradin says:

    If you’ve never read it, the very brave, stupid work by AM Clover (JACS 44(5) 1107-1118 – 1922!) involving exhaustive experimentation on ether peroxides is apropos.

  3. CET says:

    The ‘your ether is too old’ thing doesn’t make sense to me. I wouldn’t dump a handful of LAH into it, but surely there is a way to de-peroxide old ether without violating code.
    Also, I like the article’s description of acute ether toxicity. I can’t decide whether they added it to make the stuff sound dangerous, or to point out that of all the things you could pour down the sink diethyl ether is pretty benign.

  4. Paul says:

    $15,000 for disposal of a couple of cans of ether?!! Geez.
    Also, who has an axe “handy” around the lab? Someone should check to see if this guy has bone-colored business cards with Silian Rail lettering.

  5. Milo says:

    All the labs in my postdoc each had a brick in it, to throw at the windows if we could not get to the door during an evacuation. We also had axes right outside each lab, presumably for a similar purpose.
    Having seen the effects of a 1L ether explosion, I can tell you that old cans of ether can be just as scary as finding crystallized picric acid.

  6. A-non-y-mous says:

    At my PostDoc we had an axe placed on the inside of the -40degC walk-in freezer. Presumeably for the students that couldn’t operate the door handle. Many a grad student, ChemBios by the way, were tempted to use it in a more felonious manner.
    Disgruntled students and axes don’t mix. Disgruntled students and alcohol? Perfect combination.
    I don’t know why the older Prof just didn’t unload it on a new faculty member. Isn’t that why they’re there? At the very least donate it to SPU or UPS.

  7. Mark M says:

    How much of this guy’s research data was similarly fudged? You gotta wonder consider the even greater pressures of obtaining external funding.

  8. Chemgeek says:

    There are so many more interesting ways to get rid of ether. While this is not a great habit to get into, the bacteria at the wastewater treatment plant should have no trouble digesting the ether. And, 4 liters is not that much compared to the large volume that enters the plant.
    Faking paperwork…that’s the real problem.

  9. haywarmi says:

    Thanks for the great news find Derek. I actually know Dr. Storm, mostly by reputation but a good friend of mine did his Ph.D. with him.
    The axe? well they do a lot of mouse work so… I used to just use a small animal guillotine but to each his own.
    I can imagine what would be going through anyone’s mind running a lab on limited resources and then have your university tell you that you have to spend nearly a year of a grad student’s stipend on disposing of something that’s been sitting in your lab for 20 years, but this is really over the line. Gives you an idea of just how out of touch with the real world some very intelligent and successful scientists can be.
    By reputation Dr. Storm could be considered a little eccentric but faking paperwork is beyond eccentricity. It really does make you think that there’s a bigger personality issue here than just being a “bit of a cowboy”.

  10. Yeah, we can dump 25% ethanol down the drain, but not 50%. But we can’t dilute the 50% because we’re not registered disposal company. Now on the other hand, if we just happen to need to dilute it (for experimental purposes of course), then well, down the drain it goes.

  11. SP says:

    There was a regulation when I was an undergrad (don’t know if it’s still true) that on a waste label you had to mark down anything that was greater than 1% of the waste. So if you had a whole bunch of (nonreactive) stuff you couldn’t easily identify, mix it all in a waste bin and add lots of solvent A, then put “100% solvent A” on the waste label.

  12. MDS says:

    Have you thrown away old batteries in the trash? I have. Have you dump broken florescent light tubes in the garbage can? I have. Have you washed your car and let the dirty water down the sewer? I have.
    The media thrive on dramatizing things, and they focus on the “ax” – “A UW professor takes an ax to a problem” – hearing the title, you would imagine that he killed someone, so you tune in.
    What he did is certainly wrong and I don’t defend him. But it would not hurt to have some transparency from those who dispose the “hazardous wastes” – why such a hefty price for five cans of ether (BTW, NOT 5 gallons)? How much work does it really take for them to dispose it? That’s enough money to support a graduate student for a year; it is a big chunk of a year’s salary for a techincian. After years of wars, the rate at which researches are funded has decresed dramatically.
    Lesson learned: Lay off your technician, let go of your graduate student. Pay the “disposers.”

  13. Hap says:

    If he didn’t want to pay the money for disposal, he (or a grad student) could have tried checking around the lab once in a while to see if there is anything to be disposed of – most labs do some sort of cleanup, and it would have cost less and been easier than in the long run. If you have no money, and you’re playing in expensive fields, the only thing that you have to even the playing field is your brains and those of your graduate students, and if you can’t be bothered to use them, then eventually you will pay for that oversight. Environmental regulations are, of course, easier to lampoon than a simple lack of forethought, though.
    Once he decided that he didn’t want to pay for the disposal, one figures he could have done this in a less stupid way. Peroxides + brute force = bad; if he were less fortunate, he would be a serious contender for a Darwin Award for 2006. Once he managed to avoid obliterating himself, he must not have figured that falsifying documents would make anyone unhappy – I mean, lying about her transactions to the Feds got Martha Stewart time in the hole and a lot of lost money (and she was wealthy and had the benefit of lots of good lawyers), but that couldn’t happen to me, right?
    This has the sort of clever stupidity that gets its possessor nominated for a Darwin.

  14. Anonymous says:

    15K to dispose of a little ether? That’s absurd, and balking at the price may have been illegal but it was rational. Here’s an idea — he could have added a pint to his gas tank with each fill-up. It’s an ingredient in certains gas treatments anyway. There are many chemicals that can be disposed of in that way. Benzene and toluene do wonders for octane rating.

  15. Wavefunction says:

    Hilarious!…both the story and the post.

  16. On Vacation says:

    Dereke’s ether story is not unusual and hand-cuffs are put on people daily for similar offenses in industry. Under both RCRA and TSCA. Oh I’m sure not in the posh confines of upscale joints like Pfizer that have serious EHS controls, but in small chemical and manufacturing facilities across the US (and now universities). As a chemist who’s worked in the waste control business we cringe at the thought of having to ‘clean out’ or deal with academic facilities. Historically academic institutions were given no oversight and provided a loose leash to handle their own waste and storage.
    Recently the EPA has pulled out the stops and is
    having unannounced inspections. MIT was hit
    with monster fines and required to hire dozens of people which cost them tens of millions a few years back.
    One of the toughest federal agencies you will ever deal with is the EPA. They do not hesitate for a second to fine and slapp the cuffs on ANYONE.
    That being said, should anyone reading this be in a situation where their work conditions are substandard (You’ve got Ether and benzene drums piled up behind you in the lab! Or large numbers of mystery cannisters or unlabled chemicals around you) never call OSHA first. If you want results to clean up a bad chemical work environment call the EPA! There will be no bull**t and your employers will be taken to task. OSHA is largely ineffectual, with light fines and a patsy ‘industry friendly’ approach. The OSHA people vary from state to state, but on the whole they’re great with fines after your dead.

  17. augen says:

    alright people, stop rationalizing…this guy’s a crook. too bad it didn’t blow with the first strike of the ax.

  18. DrSnowboard says:

    Err.. letting it evaporate was too obvious? Over alumina or some other solid excipient to mop up any reactives, naturally. Would anyone know that he hadn’t ‘used it’?

  19. Kim says:

    My husband, who works for our state Department of Environmental Conservation in supervising clean up of hazardous waste sites sends along this hair-raising story from his personal experiences:
    Commenters are right in saying that academic labs are absolutely the worst RCRA violators. Back in the early 90’s, the really scary stuff we found at a landfill was all from one of our local state colleges (and they’re not even a research institution!)
    I’ll never forget doing the initial inspection out there and seeing stainless steel gas cylinders with regulators still attached, sticking out of the toe of the slope of the waste mass. Talk about getting your undivided attention! You do NOT throw out hardware like that unless there is something very nasty (or very unknown) inside.
    The next day, the Department of Health representative was walking on the top surface (fortunately in protective boots) and his foot went through a rusted drum carcass. Still had green liquid inside, AND a reagent-grade cyanide label on the outside.
    That’s when we started to doubt the owner’s estimate that there might be a dozen or so drums, tops. Final figure was over 3200, most of them disposed full, deliberately perforated, and then run over with a bulldozer for compaction.

  20. Pete says:

    How about expiration date on storing Tetrahydrofuran solvent. The place where I work there is an expiration date of six months after it reaches the lab.
    Once its expired it has to be disposed of by approved “disposal people”

  21. tygurr says:

    Geeze how hard can it be to find an economical method of disposing of the stuff. Just annonymously mail it to some competitor.

  22. Matt says:

    When I first heard about this incident, the idea of mixing a pint of ether with a full tank of gas in your car crossed my mind as well. I am not sure what kind of trouble he could have gotten into for doing this. But I am sure that it would have been ALOT less serious than what he now faces.

  23. belg4mit says:

    Why is that everyone seems to have forgotten about the peroxides? You don’t ship, or incinerate (in your Honda Civic) cans of peroxides. They’re probably responsible for the the bulk of the disposal cost; hazardous and unknown mix, disposing of a gallon of foo is always more expensive than a gallon of say benzene (with trace).

  24. Beatnik says:

    I don’t know about you guys, but iam sure his grad students would have a few ideas for disposal. One of my own dreams (as an undergrad) is to be let loose in the organic lab.

  25. exploded says:

    In disposing of old ether one needs to consider the peroxide crystals that can form at the junction of a metal lid and metal can. They are shock sensitive and can result in an explosion. I use to visit high schools when I worked for the state regulatory agency along with EPA and help them dispose of the old chemicals the right way. When we found old ether or picric acid, we called the state bomb squad who would detonate the material in a safe place at no cost to them.
    What professor Strong did was foolish and very dangerous. Easier to call the EPA to ask for help and explain 15K is more than the school can afford.

  26. Wolfgang says:

    Very nice blog about how not to do things. Concerning possible “whoa-type” of explosions I have had some own interesting experiences…especially ones where you thank god, that you can think about your or other peoples stupidity afterwards – not blown up to pieces!
    For example I supervised a students hydrogenation reaction on V2O5 to get V2O3 (I am an inorganic chemist) well above the ignition point of hydrogen/air mixtures. And well above the melting point of ordinary glass-ware, too. Well, I did check the apparatus with scrutiny, thinking about a leakage and everything. Unfortunately I forgot to check, if the student got a tube of quartz-glass to heat the substance within. He didn’t! And a really fascinating moment in my career was to see a glass-tube filled with hydrogen gas and deforming slowly due to the temperature of a glowing furnace. Well…fortunately we stopped it there.
    Another student, the same experiment…everything looked fine…but then, after some while I recognized a pressure decrease of the hydrogen gas bottle which was enormous (nearly all of it was gone in very short time)…ok we found the leakage…and saw that quite next to it there was the burning flame to dispose the hydrogen gas with. Yep.
    Another thing happening due to maniac students whas a destillery run dry with sodium/potassium alloy as a drying agent…because of forgetting to put on the cooling water! Well, the PVC tubes where gone quite fast…the solvent went into the hood and to complete the fun the flask broke due to overheating…when someone turned on the cooling water again…I never saw such a huge amount of anything to readily condense…beautiful in some way.
    And finally…the one with possibly the most explosive power, if it would have gone this route…a student putting chloroform into a destillery with sodium/potassium alloy on the ground…well, it took a very brave chemist to take this type of “poor-mans-atomic-bomb” to go to the rotary evaporator getting rid of the solvent again…I think, another possibility would have been to call for the bomb squad.
    These experiences from Germany…happily nothing happened but surely you would not like to be in place if it had.

  27. Mike says:

    I think the problem here is that the law doesn’t fit the landscape. Common sense tells us that when it comes to illegal disposal (or lying about it), 10,000 liters is 10,000 times worse than one liter. But the laws don’t seem to recognize this, making the EPA a terror to the independent scientist, hobbyist, or homeowner, but a fairly remote threat to the serious polluter.

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