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Buried Treasure – Of a Sort

A former colleague was telling me the other day about some not-so-pleasant surprises that occurred when he was helping to clean out a lab that hadn’t had some cabinets opened in a while, and I think many readers will have had such experiences. Academic labs are particularly prone to Easter eggs of this sort, since there’s a continual turnover of lab occupants over the years, a number of common storage areas (some of them probably rather obscure), and a strong incentive for many of them to leave quickly on finishing their degrees without necessarily taking care of every single loose end.

Duke’s chemistry department (around the time I left) tried instituting a check-the-cabinets policy after someone had bequeathed to posterity a couple of liters of unused diazomethane/ether solution in a lab fridge, which I think was helpfully labeled with something like “Big batch”. This generous donation was not received well when it was finally discovered and identified, and the plan was to keep that sort of thing from happening again. I made it out the door myself under the inspection conditions (believe me, I was in a mood where nothing was going to stop me), but I wonder how long the system was kept up and how well it worked.

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, so there’s less of the well-I-guess-I-gotta-make-it-myself-might-as-well-make-a-pile attitude for weird reagents. And the occupants of the labs tend to hang around for much longer, which gives them less of an incentive to leave Superfund-level stuff piled up for the next wave of people to deal with. There are also the industrial health and safety people, who tend to be more vigorous (or perhaps less overwhelmed) than their academic counterparts. The worst experiences I had digging around in industry labs came in the early 1990s when my company packed up and moved the entire research site, vacating buildings that had been occupied for decades. All sorts of antique equipment came to light, and I recall finding an entire dropping mercury electrode setup from the early 1950s, still in its box with classic brush-script lettering and all – it was something like an “Electro-Matic”, and sure enough, there was still mercury in there when I opened it up. Probably hadn’t seen the light of day since the Eisenhower administration. Like most everyone else, I have at various times found plastic screw-cap bottles half-full of mercury (with gunk floating on top of it) stuck in the back of cabinet spaces, and all I can say is that at least they were closed.

Some of the other buried treasures I came across over my academic career, though, included an unused bench drawer, empty but for a bottle of what had at one point been freshly prepared solid sodium amide. It had gone orange on prolonged aging, which is not so good, because that stuff (some sort of mixture of oxides) can explode on you. There were always those sealed round-bottom flasks in the back corners of hoods, gradually accumulated a furry collar of dust, with (if you were lucky) an illegible fading label on them. Some of those things burst into flame when someone finally opens then, and some of them don’t – there’s only one way to find out.

When I first started graduate school, I was assigned a desk in a disused lab. One evening I idly started looking over the shelves and discovered that I’d been sitting right down the way from about a kilo of benzidine. It had, if I recall correctly, an ancient Eastman Chemical label on it – my maternal grandfather was an early employee of Tennessee Eastman in Kingsport, a town that was largely rebuilt for that company and whose unusual smells I recall from childhood visits, and I wondered if he’d been around when that one left the plant. Anyway, there are all sorts of things that people believe (wrongly) will give them cancer, but the case for benzidine exposure is unfortunately pretty solid, so I turned that one into problem for the waste disposal people as soon as possible. Duke’s old chemistry building had a lot of nonchemical oddities shoved into corners as well – the second-floor lab where I used to prepare levoglucosan had a bunch of old PDP-8 computing hardware scattered around it, which looked paleolithic even at the time, although it was only twenty years old.

There are others, but I’ll throw this one open to the readership: what’s the strangest (or most terrifying) thing you’ve come across in cleaning out an unused chemical space? Among the worst I’ve heard was a bottle of di-isopropyl ether that was forming beautiful crystals of the peroxide under its long-undisturbed surface, and I’m very glad that I wasn’t around for that one! But what else do you have?

I’ll forestall one classic answer – for historical reasons, an awful lot of old stockrooms in high schools, etc., turn up bottles of picric acid, which generally causes panic. Really old and poorly sealed bottles can indeed dry out, which makes the stuff more sensitive, but it’s also not the Instant Bomb of the popular imagination. Now, metal picrate salts (formed in old unexploded munitions, for example) are another matter, but those are a bit less common in high school closets. Definitely call someone to dispose of picric acid if you come across it, but don’t worry that you’re going to set it off as you tiptoe back out the door.

152 comments on “Buried Treasure – Of a Sort”

  1. John Timmer says:

    A highly radioactive glass bottle containing black grains and labelled “Thorium powder”.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      All I can say to that is “At least someone labeled it”. Yikes.

      1. Canageek says:

        Thorium powder won’t be *highly* radioactive, not if its just normal natural abundance stuff. You don’t want it sitting on your bench every day, but I just transferred several large bottles of thorium and uranium oxide to radiation safety (My group has studied actinide chemistry off and on for a while), and none of them where not enough to worry about more then a couple cm beyond the drawer they where in.

  2. Isidore says:

    When I started graduate school I inherited the desk, bench space and hood of a graduate student who had just received his PhD and had left. Although technically in the Organic Chemistry division our lab was analytical, however this fellow (who, by all accounts, was rather odd and also quite brilliant) had taken it upon himself to try out as many of the reactions as he could fit in his spare time from March’s “Advanced Organic Chemistry” to satisfy his own curiosity (this was all unauthorized by our professor, of course). There were many stories told, e.g. how he managed to blow out the door of the glassware drying oven when he placed sealed tubes in it do carry out some reactions, or how he was running reactions in the hood wearing those black rubber gloves while occasionally taking bites off his sandwich, which was placed inside the hood. I found many bottles helpfully labeled “Peak B” or “Product X” or such in the non-explosion proof refrigerator, along with containers of various organolithium reagents he had prepared in quantities of hundreds of grams only to use a gram of each. In some of these the solvent had pretty much dried out leaving behind some kind of gunk. The safety office was called and I remember their response, that the proper way of disposing all this material was to “detonate it in an open pit”. In the freezer, in which the accumulated ice was pushing out the freezer door, there were samples that could be dated by how far back into the glacier they were.

  3. myma says:

    In my grandfather’s garden shed in the way back of the yard, we found a bottle of chlordane and next to it a sizeable quantity of DDT in a box.
    From the font style, they seemed to date from the 1950’s. I don’t remember what my father did with them in the end, because its not like our little hometown police annual medicine cleanout days are expecting this.

  4. Imperial says:

    Not really very terrifying, but after recently moving the whole of Imperial College London’s Chemistry Department one zone west, we discovered our lab had apparently played host to a ten litre RBF full of blue liquid at the back of an old cabinet. Turns out it was good old CuSO4, but god knows why someone needed 10 litres of it, or where they found a cork ring big enough. As you said, a problem for the waste disposal people.

    1. russell styles says:

      10 liters of copper sulfate isn’t that far off the dose used in septic tanks to kill roots. Flush it down a toilet attached to a septic tank.

  5. gcc says:

    This isn’t something I personally found, but I did enjoy the story of the periodic table from the 1880s that was found during a 2014 clean out of a storage area at the University of St. Andrews. The storage area as apparently “full of chemicals, equipment and laboratory paraphernalia that had accumulated since the opening of the chemistry department at its current location in 1968”.

  6. MoMo says:

    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.

  7. Andrew Deacon says:

    Whilst not really waste chemicals, I do recall stories from 40 years ago of people finding improvised munitions stored at the back of old store rooms. These were presumably made for the local Home Guard Unit in WW2-chemical companies having access to suitable starting materials. A late colleague did mention finding several kllos of TNT and a number of anti tank grenades.

  8. PUI prof says:

    This is not a chem lab find, but here goes… Reportedly, years and years ago, the physical plant staff at a small college came across a drum of DDT in their grounds facility. When the disposal people came to the gather the science lab waste, the disposal folks quoted a very high price to take away the DDT. The drum went back to the storage shed. Later, a local city was holding a waste collection event for stuff like used motor oil. They foolishly accepted the drum.

  9. AlphaBeta says:

    Not the craziest I’ve ever seen but I remember being allowed to rummage through an old government run lab that was shut down to see if there was any equipment or chemicals I could make use of. While going through the chemicals I found a couple of 1Kg tubs of KCN. Not exactly war crime levels of craziness but I still hope they were keeping track of who they let rummage through that lab.

  10. redarnie says:

    3 kilos of Temazepam drug substance and about 1000 tablets found in an old store room

  11. Uncle Al says:

    An antique bottle of Nux vomica seeds. Alas, no germination.

  12. Joe Morrison says:

    Not a lot of opportunities for exciting chemicals in a metallurgical lab. There was a container of picric acid and my lab has approximately 195ml of hydroflouric acid in a 200ml bottle that we have had for around 2 decades. With luck that much will still be there when I retire.

    1. Eric says:

      HF is a pretty common materials science tool. All of the titanium and nickel etchants use it in some fashion. My personal favorite is one I used to use for etching zirconium. It was 45% nitric acid and 10% HF by volume. That stuff ate the epoxy I used as mounting media better than it etched the zirconium.

      1. Derek Lowe says:

        Jeez, that is a foul mixture.

        1. Alfred Hagedorn says:

          My favorite was a mixture of aqua regia and HF, used to visualize (I can’t think of a better word) radiation-induced tracks in Plexiglas. Came across this in a Science article from the early 1960’s, I think.

          1. Eric says:

            Looking through the ASM handbooks at some of the old etchants for materials science is alarming. The etchant I referenced above for Zr is pretty tame compared to some of the old formulas which suggested boiling perchloric acid. I always wanted to suggest that to our lab safety officer, but never was that brave. A friend uses an equal parts mixture of concentrated nitric acid, HF, and hydrogen peroxide as an etchant. That’s one I really don’t want to use.

          2. Derek Lowe says:

            That sounds like a reasonable substitute for the creature’s bodily fluids in the Alien movie.

  13. UIUC alum says:

    Mine are from grad school, and are similar to what you’ve mentioned already: a bottle of diazomethane/ether (only ~100 mL), and a 1L bottle of diglyme with a couple fans of long crystalline needles. The bottle had been dated on opening; it was about 20 years old.

    Was amused to find a bottle of petroleum ether which had also been dated on opening.

  14. In Vivo Veritas says:

    Biologist here: Pretty common tho find jars full of formalin with variably labeled animal parts in them…. and I have a pretty cool rat guillotine that is at least 50 years old I found in a cabinet in a lab I inherited….

  15. Evan says:

    Picramide (aka 2,4,6-trinitroaniline), multiple 250g bottles of strychnine, 5+ year old bottles of diethyl ether, lots of scary things. My professor is going on 40+ years of tenure so theres been plenty of time for nasty stuff to accumulate.

  16. Clean freak says:

    During postdoc I was in a lab that had not cleaned out the lab space in a few decades. The lab space had also changed managing PIs a few times, without cupboards ever being cleaned out. The place was a wreck, but the lab was extremely well funded, so floppy discs where found alongside state of the art equipment.

    I sorta flipped from frustration from all the clutter, and whipped everyone into doing a big lab cleaning and sort out the chemical inventory.

    It yielded a few surprises. Mercury, crusty bottles of ancient chlorosilanes, bromine bottles with caps long eroded away and the contents evaporated. The kicker was a decent amount of gold in sheets and shards, and no one had any clue of its origins. We decided to tuck it back in the cupboard for someone else to discover. I am guessing it is still there.

  17. Mike says:

    A 100g bottle of picric acid that had started to dry out (no longer covered in water) in the back of a hood.

    To make matters worse, our PI had just coughed up $6,000 to dispose of picric acid waste (maybe a few hundred milligrams dissolved in a mixture of solvents) because the safety team said it had to be “safely detonated”.

    I’m pretty sure it’s still there as everyone thought it better to just pretend the bottle didn’t exist.

    1. UudonRock says:

      I too have had the pleasant surprise of uncovering dehydrated picric acid. It was in an ancient acid cabinet in an unused storage room. The cabinet itself had largely oxidized likely by the evaporated bottles of hydrochloric and glacial acetic bottles also present. That was a call to the local bomb squad…

  18. Peter S. Shenkin says:

    This doesn’t relate to left-behind hazards, but is perhaps scarier, as it involved unknowns blithely assigned – and passed out in gram quantities – in the orgo lab unit known as “qual organic” (“Qualitative Organic Analysis”, for those too young to be on Medicare.)

    I took an entire year of organic chemistry over the summer between my junior and senior years of high school in a science program sponsored by the NSF. We had lectures in the morning and about 6 hours of lab every afternoon, and homework at night. We went through most of Morrison and Boyd (first edition) and used Vogel for lab.

    The second or third day of the unit the teacher said, “By the way, some of these unknowns are virulently carcinogenic, so try not to touch them.” Indeed, one of my fellow students had been assigned benzidine.

    In what might have been an inexplicable overestimation of my laboratory skills, but more likely was the (un)luck of the draw, I was given Dragon’s Blood, a mixture of who-knows-what. You will be happy to know that, according to Wikipedia, “In neopagan Witchcraft, it is used to increase the potency of spells for protection, love, banishing and sexuality. In New Age shamanism it is used in ceremonies in a similar [manner].”

    1. Jeff says:

      Some sort of gold chloride/ aqua regia mixture? My wife’s a goldsmith and blithely mixes aqua regia every on occasion. She’s careful, has good ventilation and a lack of theoretical chemistry knowledge. Hence her really not quite understanding why I go so pale.

  19. Yeah, my wife had to deal with this at our local branch college. A solution of uranyl nitrate. A two-liter bottle of ether that someone had taken maybe a deciliter out of, closed, and left on a shelf for ten years. Other unidentifiable things.

  20. PyBOP says:

    I guess this is more terrifying than outright dangerous. During my PhD at a german university, a technician found a rusty 1 kg container of KCN covered with Nazi insignia in an abandoned corner of a storage room.

    1. colintd says:

      Back in the 80s I helped clear out the store room of our school metal workshop. To give you some context, the school (for boys aged 11 – 18 yr) was founded in 1764, and the workshop had a good range of kit including a couple of lathes going back to WW1. There had been a move of site middle of last century, but much of the workshop contents had just been blindly transferred. During my penultimate year a new teacher had taken over metalwork, and had decided he’d start his tenure with a proper clear out, and the obvious people to do the work were the students.

      Lots of interesting stuff at the back of the store, including reels of cotton and silk covered wire, old copper photography plates used for the school magazine, and a good selection of brass from tank / AA guns of various calibres.

      The “exciting” bits were a bottle of HF (not plastic, just wax coated glass) just casually sitting on a shelf, and two quarter hundred weight waxed paper sacks, which from the faded printing turned out to be KCN. Apparently the cyanide had been used in a salt hardening bath, at a time when the view was that a bit of natural selection of students was good for the gene pool. (Which reminds me of the “Swallows and Amazons” telegram back from the children’s father when they asked if the could go out sailing on their own: “BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN” )

      Those were the days….

      1. David says:

        Arthur Ransome! Haven’t heard him quoted in too long.

  21. Joy says:

    Biochem labs accrue different artifacts – some growing known or unknown organisms; the occasional stock vial of Y. pestis ordered by a chemical engineer for some unknown reason, raw materials including animal and vegetal. Once including the raw materials of a long- gone wanna-be taxidermist and fly-tier.

  22. A Nonny Mouse says:

    In a small private research establishment (still there according to Google street view) between MIT and Kendle Square a new entrant (late 1970s) found a 1kg bottle of amphetamine which was rapidly converted to the sulphate and “disposed of”. Kept him in beer for 4-5 years.

    1. A Nonny Mouse says:

      Sadly not according to the latest street view

      1. Anonymous says:

        You guys have me wondering … what place? I am thinking of two small chem R&D places from the 70s. Both had already closed up before the launch of Google Maps (2005). Any hints?

    2. Anonymous says:

      Not so much a Buried Treasure, but along the amphetamine line: I was doing research in more of a pharmacology – biophys chem lab. In our “drug drawer” was a scintillation vial with beautiful mostly-clear colorless chunks of cocaine; I’ll guess 3-4 grams. (Free base, not salt, as I recall being told.) In those days, the rule was “controlled substances must be kept in a locked drawer or cabinet.” The rules didn’t say anything about where the key to the lock had to be kept so we kept it in the unlocked drawer next to the locked drug drawer. No kidding.

  23. Marcus Theory says:

    How about actual treasure instead of something dangerous? We acquired a project from a company going out of business and they sent along their intermediates and some reagents — including ~1 kg of an Iridium complex! It was then forgotten about and rediscovered a few years later in an unused hood’s waste cabinet.

  24. anonymous says:

    I knew a Prof who, in his desk drawer, had a small white cardboard box (like a jewelry store box) and inside that, protected with cotton padding, was a small vial of chlorophyll labeled by Richard Willstatter himself in the early 1900s. It was passed to Arthur Stoll (who did the chlorophyll work as a student with Willstatter). Stoll gave it to the Prof when the Prof was a post-doc.

    You can buy cheap chlorophyll or even find some freshly made samples at school science fairs. But this was a sample of one of the original preps carried out by Willstatter himself.

    Years ago, on CBS Sunday Morning (Kuralt or Osgood days, not Pauley days), there was a story about a museum or curator that collects “rare” chemicals and other rare scientifica. Not necessarily scarce-rare but unique, historically rare items, such as Willstatter-made chlorophyll. I tried to track it down for the Prof (no reply from CBS; Chem Heritage Museum didn’t know about it; etc.) but w/o success. Does anyone know the place I’m thinking of? Anyone have any “pull” at CBS to get them find that source?

    The Prof with the Willstatter chlorophyll passed away several years ago. I have no idea if the Willstatter sample from his desk drawer was discarded as an innocuous piece of junk or if it was passed on to someone who knows its historical significance.

    It might be a known Buried Treasure or it might be a discarded Treasure, Buried in some landfill forevermore.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      The Boerhaave museum in Leiden has a number of things like that in its collection (urea made by Wohler, for example), so that might be a place to start.

  25. tt says:

    Here’s my favorite “lab waste” disposal story. The remains of the first sustained nuclear reactor (CP-1) can be found if you take a hike through the Palos Forest Preserve just outside Chicago. be careful turning over any graphite bricks that you may come across.

  26. the good old days says:

    Another biologist here. Pharma lab getting blood from from anonymous donors via NYC blood banks to isolate leukocytes & getting the call halfway through the processing that the donor came up as HIV positive, Hep C positive, etc. Exciting stuff

    1. NJBiologist says:


      But then, that’s why we have Universal Precautions….

      1. Vaudaux says:

        That’s why we now have universal precautions (emphasis on now). Back then, it was common to work with biological material in bare hands, in both research and clinical labs. Dentists worked with their bare hands, too.

  27. tenderbutton says:

    The 100g bottle of strychnine that I found in my PhD lab stockroom was pretty terrifying, in particular because of the menacing way in which the label identified West Berlin as its origin:

    Presumably it was used for resolving chiral acids.

  28. cannabischemist says:

    Actual treasure:
    half a kilo of an intermediate that was one step away from delta9THC…woooohhoooooo.

  29. Some idiot says:

    Similar to a story above… At a lab near where I did my PhD, a (fortunately experienced and sensible) postdoc was looking around in a dusty section of an old chemical storage cupboard and found a very dusty old bottle of diisopropyl ether, resplendent with some impressive-looking crystals. He very quietly tiptoed out of the storage area and stood guard until someone came past and then he authorities could be alerted.

    The army’s bomb squad detonated it in a hole next to a nearby sports oval.

    1. Anonymous says:

      There have been several mentions of Et2O and iPr2O so far. For those of you storing your regular / daily supply of ethers, check out David Burfield’s paper on removing peroxides therefrom. (I can’t access the paper right now. Does he mention the effectiveness cleaning up iPr2O in that paper?) Copying my old post here:

      David R. Burfield, the guy who taught us how to dry solvents in an important series of papers, also had a paper on removing peroxides from ether and storage of ethers. A few indicator mol sieves (the blue ones with, I assume, CoCl2), will slowly but efficiently break down peroxides in ether. My “shelf” bottles of ether for extraction and TLC always had a few blue Mol Sieve in them. (Your ether will become “wet” with EtOH and H2O from the breakdown so don’t count on keeping anhydrous ether anhydrous with indicator Mol Sieve.)

      Deperoxidation of ethers. A novel application of self-indicating molecular sieves.
      David R. Burfield, J. Org. Chem., 1982, 47 (20), pp 3821–3824
      DOI: 10.1021/jo00141a003

      If you do not know the status of an old bottle of ether, especially iPr2O, and even moreso if there are ppts, I do not recommend dropping anything into the bottle at all. Call for assistance. But if you are using a new bottle of ether, a few sieves might be protective. ADD A LABEL telling people what the little beads are so they aren’t posting about a Buried Treasure “with weird little unknown beads” In The Pipeline 10 years from now.

      1. Some idiot says:

        🙂 Apropos your last comment: more recently (like about 10 years a go) a colleague discovered a bottle of diglyme with a large amount of a white precipitate in it. He took all the right safety precautions straight away, and we contacted the authorities, also clearly stating that we could not discount that it was simply sodium hydroxide left as residue in an ancient once-dry bottle (2 l). They came out fully equipped and removed it safely for detonation.

        They said that regardless as to what the white stuff was, we did the right thing because (a) better to be safe than sorry, and (b) they like a bit of “live practice” every now and again!

        If it was sodium dried, then it _should_ have been labelled (which is not equivalent to “would have been labelled”), which would have made life easier. But thanks for the references! I will remember them! 🙂

      2. Another guy says:

        If you see white crystals around the cap or stopper of a container of ether (diispropyl ether forms peroxide’s very easily) don’t open it, it could explode.

  30. Eugene says:

    Recently a former pharmacy/soda fountain that had been around since the 1890’s was bought and remodeled as a restaurant with pre-20th century theme. There were hundred of old medicine bottles stored in the basement. As part of the decor they installed glass doored cabinets to display them. The labels on some of medicines were pretty shocking. A childrens elixir of opiates and arsenic was one I recalled along with DDT and various other chemicals.

  31. Jake says:

    Not scary, but certainly frightful: In our last lab move, there were several large bottles of cyclohexanethiol and t-butanethiol that were questionable at best but still came with us. The people who unpacked everything left them out on the counter in the lab and they sat there for several weeks over the Xmas holiday. You can imagine the reek we experienced coming in after New Years.

  32. Tetrakis says:

    Somewhat recent PhD graduate and my PI was retiring after over 40 years of research. Had to do lab cleanup before I left and here are some of the highlights:
    -A kilo of diphenylmercury also some other aromatic mercury compounds
    -Crusty bottles of Arsenic salts
    -4 liters of HF in a dilapidated plastic bottle

  33. Nameless says:

    My school used to have a ~10 liter drum that was filled with some liquid and atleast 2 litres of mercury. I have no idea where it came from since the school was founded less than 20 years ago.
    The local wasre disposal was very happy to take it into their care. Didnt even charge us.

  34. do says:

    Kilos of sodium and potassium, tens of liters of mercury, loads of radioactive salts, and dozens of not-anymore-labelled bottles, all discovered in unknown, unlabeled room at our faculty’s attic only after some of that sodium/potassium caught fire…

  35. Dionysius Rex says:

    I once found a rather large puddle of mercury sitting on the floor of my lab under a very old, very hot running vacuum pump belonging to a lazy, incompetent colleague. I can only suspect that the entire laboratory was coated in a thin mercuric film – luckily I only worked there for a year before finding this hidden treasure….

    1. colintd says:

      In 1990, when I was studying physics at Cambridge (UK), there was much disruption and upset when it was discovered that the old Cavendish labs (at this point used by the social scientists, because all of us physicists had moved to the new Cavendish labs at the edge of the city) had unknowingly been breathing mercury fumes from split metal which had soaked into the wooden floor boards over the years it was used by the physicists.

      To be honest at the time we thought it was very funny as we thought the social scientists weren’t doing “proper science”, but with hindsight I can see they might not have found it so funny…

  36. KevinG says:

    While renovating the former chemistry labs of an emeritus professor, the construction crew discovered several glass bottles stashed in the space between the walls with the informative label ‘perchlorate waste’. The solutions were growing pretty crystals.

  37. Biochemist says:

    Not a chemical scare, but as a biochemist in a pharma lab who has moved labs 3 times, I have encountered a fair amount of equipment so ancient it belonged in the company museum.

    The funniest anecdote comes from a colleague of mine who changed positions to a different lab in the same building as mine; it’s a large lab, with a lot of common instruments and less personal ownership of equipment. Trying to clean up the workspace and make it usable, he started going through drawers and chucking old junk and manuals to stuff that had long since been thrown out, and he encountered a drawer full of Rainin pipettes.

    Our pipettes are tracked, have asset tags, and a department checks and calibrates them on a yearly basis. Well, this lab had apparently just ordered new sets of pipettes every year, rather than send them to be checked, and chucked the old ones in the drawer. And assuming they did so whenever they needed calibration, they had done this for about 12 years! How nobody noticed the expense, or how they avoided the calibration team incessantly emailing them about getting their pipettes checked, I will never know.

  38. Jacob from upstate NY says:

    I was hired a while ago as a consultant to help a high school get their chemistry labs in order and clean up their program.
    Part of the job was inventorying their storeroom and preparing for the waste pickup.
    I should mention that this particular high school has been around for about 150 years, in the same location, and the chemical storeroom has been in use since no later than the 1940s, and probably longer.
    I found some interesting stuff in there.
    Ancient 5lb jars of chemicals, mostly innocuous, like activated carbon and benzoic acid, gallons of acid and base solutions stored in totally inappropriate containers, like old gallon plastic milk jugs and whatnot, and the kicker was the 500g bottle of sodium cyanide. There was also the jar of potassium ingots that was filled with white sludge. There was the gallon milk jug labeled 1.0M sulfuric acid that turned out to be 10M sulfuric acid. And then there was the collection of mystery powders and liquids whose labels had disintegrated with the ages.
    The waste pickup people were very reasonable with their fees, and very careful.

  39. HTSguy says:

    Not particularly dangerous, but I found 0.5 kg of phenobarbital while cleaning out an old pharma bio lab.

  40. Alia says:

    It’s nothing that big but well… I work at high school. Five or six years ago our head teacher decided to get rid of the old chemistry lab, since the subject was never a major for our students and was taught in the first year only, 30h of theory – and then, there were some pesky government regulations about toxic and dangerous substances and so on.
    So one day our chemistry/biology teacher came out of the lab white in the face and confided that he’d found an old bottle of hydrogen peroxide (did not mention the percentage) and metallic sodium. And he looked really shaken. I’m afraid I was probably one of very few people who understood his shock.
    Anyway, then it was the problem for waste disposal people.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Alia: H2O2. I used to approximate that low concentrations of aqueous H2O2 decompose at around 10% per year at room temp. 10% H202 becomes ~9% after one year; ~8.1% after two years; etc.. 30% -> 27% -> 24.3% … You can check your H2O2 with KI-starch paper. Slow to blacken = low conc; snap to black = high conc. (When necessary, do a titration!)

      Another not-too-well-known problem with aqueous H2O2 is that some people store it in the fridge (even worse, freezer). If your fridge is little too cold, a pure water phase freezes out before the mixed phase and your H2O2 concentration in the mixed liquid phase goes way up. Also, never put ANYTHING in a bottle of conc (30-35%) H2O2. Decant a small portion into a beaker and stick your pipettes and syringes into the beaker. Discard the unused portion; do NOT pour it back into the bottle.

      1. Alia says:

        It’s not like I’m going to do those tests myself – I considered a career in chemistry while in high school but finally went into humanities. I have the background to read and understand a lot of stuff I read here but that’s all.

      2. Another guy says:

        H2O2 decomposes to water and O2 with an increase in pressure if the container is tightly sealed. Usually 30% conc H2O2 is supplied with a safety cap that vents excess pressure. I found an old such bottle and it pretty much turned into clean water and thankfully no burst of pressure when opened, but another innocent-looking reagent bottle had built up enough pressure to launch the cap to the ceiling.

      3. Paul says:

        That is extremely useful info. I read this blog with deep fascination (electronics technician, not a chemist), but some of the gems of wisdom that I find relate to me working safer, finding shortcuts, and does things with more confidence. I etch PCB using what I consider the more environmentally friendly option, but I have low-grade H202 that sits around for a month or so before being slowly used. The problem is that I have no way of knowing if its good or not, or if my workshop is too cold that day, or is my acid on its last legs…

        Just ordered some KI paper from my Chinese comrades. ^^

  41. Alyssa says:

    Microbiologist here. Cleaned out a 4 degree walk in and found a loosely-closed bag filled with hamster specimens… that has been infected with C. difficile. It has been sitting on the shelf for a couple years. A lot of bleach was used that day.

    Also on the same shelf: rodent stomachs infected with H. pylori. At least those were in sealed specimen jars….

  42. rodentrancher says:

    I was a flunky in the “Environmental Health and Safety” department at a state university in the early 80’s. The engineering school had an old Callery Research/MSA heat exchange unit used in the 1950’s for training students in the nuclear engineering program. This lovely device was filled with about 20 kilos of NaK – sodium/potassium alloy. The story I heard has that MSA gave an estimate of $50,000 to come dismantle and take it away. The head of EHS decided we could do ourselves.

    One of my least favorite memories is cutting out pipe segments from this thing and trying to get them buried in open-head drums of anhydrous sodium carbonate before they ignited…

  43. Druid says:

    In a lab tidy-up circa 1980, someone found a bottle with the “initials” PhNC on it. Since he didn’t know any Phil’s with those intials, he washed the contents down the sink. That day he learned that isonitriles smell really really bad. I am still pleased that I was away that day. In those days, chemists were trusted to know how and when to open a window, so the stench was not left to circulate around the whole building for days.
    An internet search on isonitriles led me to Derek’s “Things I Won’t Work With” in 2010. You guys were more fun back then!

  44. Ex-GSK Harlow says:

    Industrial labs don’t have this sort of thing?!?

    At GSK Harlow some poor soul found a large bottle of picric acid that had dried out and begun to crystallise around the lid.

    GSK called in bomb squad twho promptly dug a hole on the Harlow site’s lawn and got a remote to drop it into said hole before detonating it.

    Fun times!

  45. Soton says:

    At Southampton Uni when refitting the old labs, someone pulled up the floor covering and found almost a kg of mercury in little pools all over the place.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Repeating something previously posted In The Pipeline. Must have been way more than 1 liter of Hg. A Treasure Buried, but not deep enough.
      “Mercury storage – An electrochem prof retired and the new guy started cleaning up the old lab. Found a small puddle of Hg. Others came in to help. They pulled out old benchwork and found more puddles of Hg underneath! And more and more! I guess they were unintentionally “storing” their Hg in those places. The university soon decided that the lab needed a major HazMat cleanup and refurb.”

      1. NJBiologist says:

        How on earth do you chemists *not* have an abbreviated life expectancy?

        1. Anonymous says:

          “How on earth do you chemists *not* have an abbreviated life expectancy?” – It is well accepted that benzene is toxic and carcinogenic. Several years ago (during the days of sci.chem), there was a long term study of chemists working in industry with known (factory monitored) exposure to benzene that was compared to a non-chemist cohort. I think the chemists fared better in the cancer comparison but they definitely had greater longevity than the non-chemists. Nevertheless, the study concluded that benzene is carcinogenic and that it will kill you. Someone commented at that time, “Yes, benzene is toxic. It kills you by making you live longer.” That was a “spit on my keyboard and display” moment for me.

          But I have to repeat my prior suggestion (request) to In The Pipeline. This topic is up to 128 replies so far. If you don’t log in for a while, you can’t figure out what is new (beyond the five most recent posts on the sidebar). I’ve missed posts that I only found after coming back the topic and rereading too much stuff. If Pipeline used forum software instead of blog software, it would be easier for everyone to keep up, search for recent and older posts, etc.. Some forum software keeps track of “unread posts” or “new posts since last login” and so on. There are lots of free open source platforms. But it would require another migration of the archive. But it would make it easier to follow and contribute to topics going forward. Anyway, just sayin’ …

        2. John Dallman says:

          Most of these substances aren’t hazardous in practice, if you handle them carefully and don’t have accidents with them. The “avoiding accidents” part is really important.

          One of the best reasons for having practical science lessons in schools is to find out which students tend to have accidents, so that their careers can be steered away from hazardous stuff.

    2. alchemist says:

      Quite happy I did my PhD in the new labs 🙂

    3. Taco says:

      I’ve been told this is a problem at the Forsythe Institute here in Boston. Too many years of doing dental research in an era when tossing mercury (from fillings) down the drain was considered acceptable disposal procedure. One imagines that the u-bends are suspiciously heavy.

  46. nonymaus says:

    Since I work in a Bio-lab, I discovered a pile of Botox in ampules (8) that had just the label but no lot number or concentration etc. From the age of the label it looked at least pre-2000 if not 1980s. Since it’s one of the substances that cause real troubles these days, the EHS at our institution was less than thrilled to learn of this discovery.

  47. dearieme says:

    I don’t know what the most dangerous stuff I discovered was because I can’t read Chinese.

    Our neighbour cleared out his garden shed and found a German incendiary bomb. I don’t think that counts.

  48. Martin Stoermer says:

    During a pharmacology lab cleanup a bookcase was moved to reveal a fumehood behind it. It contained a Winchester of isopropyl ether containing some crystalline matter. Assuming peroxides the bomb squad came, took it out onto an oval, put it in a pit they’d dug, and detonated it.

  49. MrRogers says:

    As a young undergrad, I volunteered in the lab of a new faculty member. We needed a cold room for FPLC and the chair assigned us one on condition that we clean it out. It turns out that a its previous owner had recently retired for health reasons halfway through a study of infant diarrhea in Central America. We took out bag after bag of large glass test tubes and Coke bottles that no longer contained cola. Fortunately for me, I had to go to class about half way through.

  50. Andrew says:

    I was tasked with helping clean out the remaining laboratory space of Howard Zimmerman at UW-Madison after he passed away in 2012. We found many shocking things in that lab, from a nearly rusted-through 30 L drum of trifluoroethanol, to an approximately cubic foot brick of lithium metal sitting in a drum that had formerly been filled with oil, except for the slow-yet-steady trickle of oil coming from under that fume hood that a number of post docs and undergrads had ignored for what was obviously years. ~8-10 kilos of cyanide salts on a shelf labelled “Danger: Death.”

    The best was the vented cabinet under a fumehood labelled “Death” that contained 12-14 fully rusted out lecture bottles of HCl gas, Cl2 gas, and a myriad of other highly corrosive, highly toxic gases. Developed a newfound appreciation for the safety department that day.

    1. tangent says:

      I ♥ the “Danger: Death.”

  51. Chrispy says:

    A respected professor at the University of Washington discovered liters of ethyl ether that had been abandoned in his lab, and he became incensed when he found out that it would cost $15,000 to dispose of them. Not daunted by the seized lids, he chopped open the containers with an axe and dumped them down the sink. (linked in name)

  52. Ex Lab 159 says:

    As a newish PhD student, back in the days before commercial dried solvents, I once shared a fumehood with a visiting Antipodean Prof, an eminent figure in the field of organometallic chemistry. Back then labs had a THF still, so that reactions could be carried out in freshly dried solvent, and chemists being chemists the back of the hood was inevitably littered with half full round bottomed flasks of THF of indeterminate pedigree.

    When not gadding about the country giving invited lectures, the Prof aspired to use his sabbatical to re-acquaint himself with the delights of practical organometallic chemistry. First thing in the morning before gadding off for the afternoon the Prof would burst into the lab (“I need some dry THF – no time to set up the still”), yank a round bottomed flask out of the back of the hood, peer at the contents (“that’ll do”) and hastily set up a reaction, helping himself to glassware the rest of us had put in the drying oven (“I’m off now, I’ll work it up tomorrow”).

    Useful lesson that those at the top of the tree forget how they managed to get up the tree in the first place.

  53. Anonymous says:

    This wasn’t in a lab, but, rather, in the attic of my dad’s detached garage, about 40 years ago. It was a wide-mouthed mason jar, with three brown cardboard tubes sticking in it, and the jar was about half-filled with a thick, yellow liquid. For, you see, there is a correct way to store dynamite, and many incorrect ways!

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      I would not have taken that well at all, once I persuaded my brain to accept the evidence of my eyes.

  54. Tocrat says:

    Fridge clear out revealed a long forgotten bottle labelled magic methyl. Panic ensued

  55. loupgarous says:

    During my wild n’ crazy undergrad days, I affably offered to store some “stuff” for a buddy of mine at the house I was renting. On looking in the box, I found some of the stuff was 250 ml of reagent-grade hydrazine. As my home was also the home of my wife and kids, I found another place for the rocket fuel, fast.

  56. Blunderbuss says:

    During lab cleanup in grad school I was assigned the fridge. I disposed of a 2 L bottle of Fe(CO)5 with a screw top that had failed and various other organometallics in poorly sealed containers. Later that evening I became violently ill, puking with high fever. I went to the hospital and told them I had probably inhaled some metal carbonyls. They sent security and sent me outside, at which point I explained that I did not in fact have material on me. They let me back in and I explained my situation to the physician and he offered me an acetaminophen. I asked the fool if he was concerned about giving me a liver toxin, and left the hospitial. I went home, puked more, had night sweats, headaches and lived.

  57. Lab admin really mad says:

    It would be nice to see some of these ungrateful postdocs/students learn their lesson about unwanted Easter eggs and be forced to resign. Nothing would make me happier than an easier lab clean


    This guy took a picture of a bottle of crusty arsenic trichloride he found.

  59. Welsh Dragon says:

    “and a strong incentive for many of them to leave quickly on finishing their degrees without necessarily taking care of every single loose end” – There wouldn’t be this incentive if you didn’t drag out your PhDs for seven years or whatever it is what you Yanks do. Ridiculous system.

    1. Anonymous says:

      In chemistry, 5 years average to PhD after undergrad. A typical European experience is 2 year masters followed by 3 year doctorate, no?

  60. John McDonald says:

    Two one year Columbia grad students moved into an old unused lab a floor down to get some distance from the PI. We knew the lab had been used for the isolation and structure determination of urushiol and not been used since. There were no vials of compound, only old drawers filled with trash. We cleaned out the trash carefully. In our third year two new grad students came down to join us. They cleaned out their benches, unaware of the danger, as we forgot to warn them of the labs history. Luckily only one developed a case of poison ivy rash all over his hands and arms.

  61. OxfordDPhil says:

    I did my PhD in the Chemistry Research Laboratory at Oxford which, whilst being quite new, had a lot of chemicals transferred over from much older labs when it was built. We worked in a lab that we had previously shared with a large-ish sugar chemistry group, and which we took over when the PI moved to New Zealand. We inherited their old chemicals.

    The most treasured thing I remember finding was, I think, an ancient bottle of 2,4-DNPH. It was so old, it had been manufactured by a German chemical company before the Second World War. It had cracked card cover over the lid, which was tied with some fine string. The label was a generic label from the company, with the contents hand-written in exceptionally delicate cursive script. The bottle was amber glass, so we couldn’t really see inside.

    It’s probably still in that cupboard. It belongs in a museum, really.

  62. Jalfrezi says:

    A heavily taped up dessicator with ‘Thallium waste – DO NOT OPEN!!’ written on it.

    1. Nechrochemist says:

      Is this in an inorganic lab in Sweden? I might have seen the very same dessicator

  63. Silicon says:

    Moving into the lab space of a retired professor, there was an old glovebox that we couldn’t see inside of since there was a white haze on the front pane, but money was tight and we wanted a second glovebox. Turns out, there was an open bottle of TiCl4 left in the back corner that had been slowly filling the box with HCl since the blowers were no longer working and the sieve bed was far beyond useless.

    That was really fun when we popped the front panel off to do the clean up!

  64. Grim Reaper says:

    In the subbasement of Mallinckrodt practically under Oxford Street we found an awful lot of bottles and sealed vials of assorted boranes. Left over from Bill Lipscomb work. Yes and big jars of Picric Acid. The EH&S guy went nuts.

  65. Project Osprey says:

    I’ve had to do things like this a few times. The most memorable was during my PhD at Liverpool.

    I’d recently inherited the lab and was asked to do a clear out because we had more students coming in. One of the under-fumehood cupboards was rusted shut and someone had helpfully, or ironically, stuck a used ‘toxic/skull’ warning sticker on it. Upon prizing it open I was confronted with a morass of bottles, their labels at an advanced stage of decay due to the acrid atmosphere within.

    I can still picture one of them, a 1L Sigma Aldrich bottle, the squat kind with the small screwcap. Over the years it’s contents has slowly been permeating out though the lid to form beautiful dendritic crystals, so that it looked a bit like a dandelion. Opening the door caused it to wobble and crack, releasing tiny crystal dendrites that floated through the air… thus began a very bad day

  66. A non mouse says:

    When I was getting my undergrad degree, I got friendly with one of the HazMat folks. I asked him if anything especially weird had happened lately and he told me that in the 50s, the Department of Energy had shipped neutron sources to various university physics departments. The source had recently been shipped back, because it had been noticed it was leaking neutrons…

    It seems the neutron source was a 55 gallon drum filled with parafin and some Am or maybe Cf at the center? There was a plastic drawer in the side so researchers could get sample closer to the source, but the seals were failing…

    1. loupgarous says:

      Made by Monsanto? I remember seeing a smaller canister kept behind three sets of very stout locked, alarmed doors and buried in a small concrete vault in the director’s offoce of a nuclear science center where I went to school. Bright red and white Monsanto logo, and clashing radiation and poison placards. I think it was either a Pu-Be or Po-Be neutron source.

    2. loupgarous says:

      I’ve seen a Cf-252 source being moved to the bottom of the large pool where it would live till DoE took it back (it belonged to USAEC when it was loaned to the University). The source, the size of a 9mm pistol cartridge, was transported in a 55-gallon drum in a semi-trailer to the Nuclear Center.

      From there it was released from the straps keeping it from bouncing around said semi-trailers, and moved with long poles to the cavernous inside of the Nuclear Center, where it was winched by a motorized crane along an I-beam to where it could lowered into the pool, the source then manipulated from the drum to where the two and a half neutrons it made per fission could be most effectively used, under all that water.

      Just mentioning this because I think the source you’re mentioning was probably not Cf-252. Possibly it was some gadget using Po-210 in proximity to a shell of beryllium (the same ingredients used in the “urchin” neutron initiator common to early fission primaries in nuclear weapons).

      1. Bruce says:

        Having difficulty envisioning half a neutron and guessing different decay modes, I looked it up on Wikipedia and they say it’s 3.7 neutrons per fission, which sounds like a lot. You seem like a real knowledgeable guy, and if you want to go in there and make an edit…personally, I would rather pour diisopropyl ether over picric acid crystals than edit a Wikipedia page. At least in a local bar fight, I have some knowledge of the identities, capabilities and weaknesses of the participants.

        1. loupgarous says:

          @Bruce, the average # of neutrons emitted per spontaneous fission is probably correct in the wikipedia article, I looked and the source looks to be reliable. Which my memory for exact figures from the 1970s isn’t.

          As a wikipedia editor myself, I notice that editing physical science articles is relatively painless. Editing articles with any political dimension to them is often not painless, because the political editors seem to feel called to get their point of view immortalized in encyclopedia articles as “The Truth”.

  67. New (millenial?) thinker (though not a millenial) says:

    This is just irresponsible to leave dangerous chemicals around in the lab. When I did my PhD, the very first month I started, there was a lab cleaning. Ever since then, I always cleaned up. It was just unconscionable to leave toxins, carcinogens, pyrogens, and potential explosive materials around to innocent people. Someone else disposing them can sometimes let them out into the environment to a broader range of people and animals. I always clean up. I did so after I finished my PhD, even though it meant a few extra days in the lab.

    And yes I recycle diligently.

    1. Joeylawn says:

      Thank You for doing that.

  68. escapee says:

    Back when I worked my first R&D job at GSK there was an old story from the GlaxoWellcome days about a box of depleted uranium turning up due to a mix-up at GE.

    Personally, finding an old pipette tip box filled with high-concentration cyanide in vials at the back of a dry storage cupboard during my PhD was quite a surprise.

  69. Taco says:

    I had heart-stopping moment in grad school when digging through a fridge I found a 100 mL glass-stoppered erlenmeyer with ‘dimethylcadmium’ hand-written on the outside. I asked the most senior grad student in the lab why we had it he looked around conspiratorially and said “It’s oxalyl chloride; I just don’t want anyone taking it.”

  70. Bubba Zinetti says:

    Not as bad as some of the previous posters. Cleaning out a lab in the Jones building (Hey Derek!). We found a large TLC tank filled with Cromerge diluted in sulfuric acid. I watched as it was poured down the drain.

  71. Will says:

    An exceedingly large bottle (500 g? Maybe a kg?) of chloral hydrate, leftover diazomethane in chloroform, platinum on asbestos support. My post doc lab wasn’t as bad because it had only been established about 6 years and was outside of the chem department so the opportunity to pilfer other closing labs hadn’t presented itself.

  72. 10 Fingers says:

    Oh, my goodness, the stories from my graduate lab at Yale. The worst, for the most part, happened when I led a cleanup of the lab late in my tenure, driven by the extent of the crap we had building up for a couple of decades in the back of a couple of the fridge/freezers. Some of them had glaciers in the back of both compartments, with large bottles completely embedded in them. The backs of some cabinets were corroding in places where no one had looked for eons. It was just a swell time.

    As the ice melted, the revealed bottle labeled 70% hydrogen peroxide was a shock – that got hauled away immediately. Another, right next to it, was the opened bottle of t-BuLi in hexane capped with a wire-sealed rubber septum that hadn’t been pierced – or used, given the concentration and response when we quenched it. Picrates were discovered and taken away, the list was really something.

    This went on for a few days, and while we had some controlled detonations, no one was harmed. One of the reasons I use my nickname on this site, given around this time, stems from a celebration of finishing this task intact – along with a graduate thesis filled with explosive air-and-water-sensitive reagents.

    1. redox rxn says:


  73. Chris says:

    Hmmm, let’s see….

    Old 1960’s vintage poly bottle of ultra pure high test peroxide. Wasn’t still HTP but it had enough remaining poke to ignite the hydrazine hydrate “test fuel” we added it to with a satisfying bang. Poured into a bucket of water and down the drain.

    Large cork-stoppered bottle of some uranium salt found behind a stationary cupboard. Contained a beautiful crystal the size and shape of an old board rubber.

    2 l of antique sulfuryl chloride. Added to ice water in a plastic bucket on the mistaken assumption it would react quickly like thionyl chloride. It doesn’t. Added caustic pellets to neutralise what we thought was by now just aqueous acid. Pellets hit the layer of sulfuryl chloride at the bottom of the bucket causing it to start making awful noises and jump around. We put the whole bucket in a big ice bath and stirred furiously until it calmed down. I think my heart rate took longer to settle.

    What else? Leaking UF6 cylinders. Lots of alkyl lithiums. Some hemi-mustard. A decomposed bottle of XeF2 that had fluorinated everything around it. A vintage cylinder of IF5 with a strange valve assembly that somebody managed to unscrew by accident on the open bench, releasing a big plume of HF and other horrors. That was fun. An unventilated cupboard of old cyanides in poorly sealed bottles – turns out I can smell HCN. At another establishment we got a phone call from a local university: “hi, we need some advice. We’re cleaning out a lab and we found a vial at the back of a cupboard. It’s labelled “nitroglycerine, 10 grams.” The liquid is brown and I can see bubbles in it.” Told them to calmly isolate the lab and call the bomb squad, fortunately they did. Had visions of the ruined lab on the evening news if they’d tried to sort it out themselves.

    I’ll add more if I remember them…

    1. Tocrat says:


  74. tom says:

    This article in the New Zealand news seems rather typical:

    They had found some hydrazine monohydrate wiht crystals growing around the lid, and are calling in some blokes from the NZ army to detonate it.

  75. Ted says:

    Part of my summer research contract at Reed in ’91 or ’92 required that I help move materials into our new chemistry building. The old building had been running since the late 40s. I found many a strychnine synthesis intermediate as well as some cocaine and morphine, but the best story came in the walk-in cooler. Many a student in Prof. Cronyn’s “Quantitative Analysis” course failed to dispose of their isolates at the completion of their studies. Only a one of them, to my knowledge, labelled his sample (painstakingly isolated as a 70’s era undergraduate) only to return the school as director of the Reed Research Reactor. I handed him the decades old vial, said: “this was labelled with your name, where would you like to keep it?” and watched as his puzzlement slowly faded into a shocked nostalgia…

    The grim part was moving one of the hoods in the inorganic lab and finding at least a half liter of mercury pooled up in the corner.


  76. OZ1SEJ says:

    I once came across a small, brown paper bag, the top neatly folded down to keep it closed. I opened it and looked down on a rather ordinary-looking powder of small, white crystals. I then turned the bag around, and on the other side, someone had written Hydrazine Sulfate with a ballpoint pen. I carefully put it back.

  77. JB says:

    While cleaning out our cold room, which was generally used for biology experiments, we found a collection of 4L metal containers of isopropyl ether. Some of them were bulging. We clearly made no attempt to unscrew the lids to look for crystals. Bomb squad cleared them out.

  78. Petros says:

    When my school physics teacher retired his succesor found the radioactive sources cupboard contained multiple samples of relatively high energy open souces e.g Pu. The government establishment at Harwell was called in to remove them.

    The same teacher used a plastic bowl full of mercury, a glass tube and his bare hands to demonstrate the principal of a barometer

    1. Hap says:

      My high school physics teacher had lots of mercury around, and he seemed to get cranky after a while; I wondered if the mercury had an effect on him (he was in the room all day and after school for many years).

  79. Grad Student says:

    Someone left an unlabeled, un-inventoried bottle of triphosgene in the cabinet under the hood next to mine. This despite a “inventory everything when it’s received” policy. The new grad student was (understandably) not pleased when we found it on annual lab clean-up/inventory day. But at least we found it before it found him!

  80. Gene says:

    I’m an environmental regulator. At a previous job we had a metal plater/finisher move to a new building about a block and a half away. They did this by moving everything from the old building to the new building on pallets with a couple of fork trucks over the weekend.

    After they were all moved in, the Fire Department did their inspection along with me. On one rack was a pallet with old bottles on it; including a container of ethyl ether. No one there knew why they had it or how long it had been there, but the label didn’t have a ZIP code with the supplier (which had been out of business for at least a decade) address.

    The FD promptly evacuated the building and called their HAZWaste truck and the police bomb squad. Nothing blew up.

  81. Alchemist and Artificer says:

    When I did my undergrad there was the cautionary tale of a student (I knew the chap, he wasn’t bright) using a very old bottle of Et2O which he found tucked away in a cupboard for his workup.

    After rotavapping down his solution, he found that he had several hundred percent crude yield. Not to worry though, he just took a sample down to the NMR to find out what’s wrong. He came back with a beautiful spectrum of ether peroxide with minor amounts of his product. And presumably the pressing need for a fresh pair of pants.

    Also, when I did my MSc one of my colleagues asked around if someone had some triphosgene. A postdoc from another group cheerfully informed her that, no, they didn’t have any triphosgene. But if she wanted she could borrow the lecture bottle of straight phosgene they had.

    Funnily enough, when the PI of said other group retired a year or so later, he found himself in need of disposal of several lecture bottles filled with uncomfortable stuff. Too stingy to pay for proper disposal, he found himself a scrap metal vendor who was willing to take them under the condition that the cylinder heads be sawed off. It’s not a pressure vessel any more then, after all.

    So one fine afternoon that PI was found emptying the lecture bottles into a fume hood, one by one, and then chopping them up with an angle grinder… Whether or not the bottle of phosgene was among those I couldn’t tell, but the bottle of silane was utterly beautiful, burning with a brilliant flame, sand gently snowing down…

    Thinking back now I’m amazed my old department is still around and going strong…

    1. Anonymous says:

      Not a Buried Treasure but a Buried Product, buried under peroxides or BHT. Et2O is usually stabilized with a small amount of BHT. (Tiny impurities in your product after Et2O extraction and concentration? Think BHT.) But that can wrong: too much or too little. Previously posted In The Pipeline:

      “Ether usually ships with stabilizer, such as BHT. I have been thru both situations of having no stabilizer and too much stabilizer. I extracted my product and the crude NMR showed more ether peroxides than product! My product was unstable and various attempts to recover it failed. On another occasion, I extracted my product and I was surprised to see huge Ar-H and CH3 peaks swamping everything out. On both occasions, I confirmed the bad ether and reported to the stockroom that they should pull those batch numbers to protect others from the same problem. I routinely “spot test” most of my ethers on KI-starch paper before doing anything important.”

  82. Researchfella says:

    When I started to do my postdoctoral research at a prestigious Ivy League university, I found a collection of lecture bottles in the cabinet under my fume hood. Lo and behold, I found a lecture bottle of nickel carbonyl, an extremely toxic substance that Derek has written about as something he would never work with. Considering that a slight leak in the lecture bottle valve could result in the untimely death of my colleagues and me, I promptly arranged for the lecture bottle to be removed for hazardous waste disposal.

  83. TWS says:

    Nothing really horrible, but I do remember recovering an old nitrogen dioxide lecture bottle from the back of a fume hood. I think someone actually used it for characterising a cavity ring down spectrometer they’d built operating with a 405 nm laser. While the valve opened quite happily, closing it again proved to be quite a struggle, although I must admit that seeing an orange-brown gas creep around a gas manifold is interesting to watch.

  84. Non-pharma chemist says:

    Not so many horror stories. More like finds from the elephant graveyard. A glass ball, complete with glass seal you can break by lifting and dropping a magnet, purporting to be full of oxygen-18. A rainbow selection of vacuum sealed vials of iridiums, rhodiums, rheniums. A vial full of Fe-57, used normally for Mossbauer spectroscopy. Moving into raised eyebrow territory, a 1-kg bottle of codeine sulfate(!). A small wooden container labeled “bly” (in Sweden, so this label was correct). When opened, it revealed a fine black powder and the cover was replaced sloooowly as not to disturb. In a military lab storage facility, a large piece of thick pipe, capped at both ends, bearing a label “Sarin”. Given the packaging, probably mostly dangerous to my feet, but still.

  85. Luke Ueda-Sarson says:

    When I was a high school student in the mid 80s I was given the job of stock-taking the school’s chemistry store. I never did figure out why there was half a kg of some thallium salt in there. Now I look back on it, I’m hoping it was TlCl rather than something more soluble, but being a teenage boy at the time, my puerile mind only remembered the name of the cation (thallous) and not the anion…

  86. Emjeff says:

    Apparently this happens in pharmacies as well. I heard a first-hand account about a pharmacists who found a gigantic bottle of amphetamine powder from the 60s that was not on the scheduled substances inventory (therefore, it did not exist). He went through it in about 2 years, and then had to do a stint in rehab…

  87. li zhi says:

    [warning: shaggy dog story] Derek, years ago, plugged ‘Ignition!’ as a fun (chemically centered) (free) read. In it I found the explanation for why our central R&D chemical store room had so many awful chemicals in it. Harshaw was not only involved in the Manhattan Project, but also made HF and related chemicals, and as the book suggests, they were looking at various rocket propellants (back in the day). Our Store Room had many thousands of chemicals on maybe 200-300 linear feet of shelving, had to have 6-8 shelves up to about 8′. When RCRA was passed, management asked whether we could just brick over the doorway, as disposal costs would be enormous. Some of the shelving was wood, some metal. Some chemicals had leaked and eaten through their shelves, but a lot more had (very strangely) crawled away. I recall chemicals which had busted thru their lid, leaving a trail that crawled down the side of their jars/bottles, over the shelf and onto the jars underneath Some even made it two shelves down. Most of these left crystal trails behind, some with ‘black goo’ in the center. Azides, fluorides, nitro-bz derivatives, heavy metals, lots of ’em. At the time we were working on an industrial bleaching process (lab only) using Cl2. Other than the wide variety of propellants (see Ignition!), nothing stands out as particularly bad. Did I mention the room was unvented?

  88. navarro says:

    two instances come to mind. the first, when i was a high school senior, happened when i volunteered to help the chemistry teacher inventory and reorganize the supply room. in one corner of the room there was an ancient cardboard box that had a bottle that had been loosely wrapped in what proved to be lead foil. it was a bottle of radithor radium water. we re-wrapped that and got it out of there.

    the second instance occurred when i was doing a summer project for one of the chemistry professors as an undergraduate. i was given a space that a graduating master’s student had vacated at the end of the spring term. gone but not forgotten, he had left behind a couple of momentos of his various research from the previous three years. in the back of a drawer was a half full (or perhaps half empty) container of powdered beryllium metal, 99.9%. oddly enough, i knew what berylliosis was and how much i did not want to get it. the second souvenir he left behind was at the back of the top shelf in his carrel space in the lab. i was not happy to reach up there and find a 250 gram jar of 98% sodium cyanide granules that had around 200 grams left in it. surprise!

  89. Hank Roberts says:

    I recall, growing up as a “faculty brat” around a major university’s biology department, that it was common practice in the 1950s to have a bottle of benzene next to the wash sink.
    Why? Because it was a good solvent for taking off all the nasty stuff people got on their hands.

    And of course every room in the building reeked of formaldehyde ….

    I also recall “how do you tell the biologists and chemists from the physicists in the men’s room? The physicists wash their hands _after_ they pee …..”

  90. Bill Tozier says:

    My father was a manager in the instrumentation lab at NACA/NASA Lewis, and was always interested in optics in an amateur sense too. I think he always wanted to make his own telescope, and they way they did it in the World War II era was to silver the glass themselves with mercury. When they were still building the buildings at the new facility there, he said they just kept the mercury bath in the room with the coffee percolator, because there weren’t many electrical outlets.

    Anyway, that as preface, when he retired he had quite a few electronics and fun home science things he still wanted to do in a room in the basement. There were plenty of mineral collections and vacuum tubes of course, but also a lot of closed up cabinets and such. When he died, and we went to empty the room out, I started to open a drawer in an antique bedroom dresser—the kind with thin pinewood bottoms—but it was half-stuck because the bottom of the drawer was bowed down far enough to interfere with the next drawer down.

    Something heavy had been sitting there for a long time.

    Long enough to just about break out the drawer and dump it on the next one down.

    It was about a liter of reagent-grade mercury.

  91. Pyro says:

    … It says something that my grandfather (a former Chemical Corps officer) recognizes most of these (with grimaces). Took out lots of picric acid, moved plenty of UF6, and yet the one he says was the worst he had to deal with personally was a live WWII hand grenade in someone’s attic.

  92. still managed to reproduce says:

    At my first faculty position, I worked in a building that had been built in the late 60s and fully furnished with everything you needed for a new science building in 1969. New stuff had been added over the decades, but the old had never really been cleaned out. I used to eat lunch in a break room/ storage area in the basement, across from my office. One of the many things stashed in there, right beside the table where we ate, was a collection of geological specimens each in its own little drawer. One day after I’d been working there for about three years I was idly reading the drawer labels as I scarfed down a sandwich: “oxides – Mn… oxides – Fe… oxides – Cu.” Down below table height, in fact right around groin level, was a drawer labeled “oxides – U.” I checked, and sure enough it held two large chunks of dark ore in specimen trays.

    1. Olandese Volante says:

      The alpha particles from a chunk of uranium ore are nothing to worry about, they won’t get anywhere near the family jewels 😉
      The daughters in the decay chain, especially from Rn down though, are a different matter. Rn being a noble gas, it exudes from the ore and from thence the decay chain continues in small dust particles that may lodge in the lungs, where alpha emitters can do considerably more damage.

  93. Nile says:

    Two sources of such stories are absent:

    The nuclear industry;

    Both of the physics departments in my current city have dark tales of bricked-up basement labs from the heroic age of early nuclear physics.

    1. Olandese Volante says:

      “Here Be Glow-In-The-dark Dragons”

  94. Ingvar says:

    OK, so this is actually picric acid. But my reason for being a wee smidgen nervous is that it was a ~35 l bottle, with plenty of crystalline deposits on the top 60% of hte bottle and a liquid phase indicating ~20 l of liquid picric acid sloshing about. Liquid volume very much estimated, I was NOT about to uncork it (there were crystalline deposits between the class stopper and the bottle) and even if it wasn’t necessarily going to explode from just looking at it, it would be painful (extremely painful) and loud (I guess) if it went off.

    And I’d just spent ~2h re-arranging the chemicals in the lab, trying to impose some order, leaving that large bottle at the bottom of one of the cabinets until last.

  95. pp says:

    A friend was helping clear out a laboratory at a university hospital (the medical research was being moved to the main science campus). Amongst labelled bottles of various animal tumours, they found a 2.5 litre brown bottle containing a liquid with a label faded beyond legibility. Detailed investigation succeed in identifying it as nicotine. Later another brown bottle was discovered to contain approx 1 kg of asbestos fibres. Apparently the lab had hosted research into the health affects of tobacco smoking and asbestos from the 1950s to the 1970s.

  96. Poinsy says:

    I told my dad about this post, and he instantly told the story of finding anthrax while cleaning up at an engineering firm he worked for in the late 70s.
    He was working on measuring air particulates. Apparently the firm had previously been involved in making particulate forms of anthrax.
    No casualties were reported.

  97. Cag says:

    New PI here. Moved into the old lab of a famously disorganized senior colleague who left for a dept chair position elsewhere. Tons of unlabeled samples, and enough azide to blow up the entire building. After I complained, I was told that the lab had been “cleaned up” after (notoriously lax) campus EHS threatened to shut the whole building down… I shudder to think how it was before that cleanup.

  98. PittChemist says:

    Neighboring lab had an aged and forgotten 10g bottle of silver azide that had crust on the cap and looked sealed shut. The EHS people took one look at it and proceeded to dispose of it in a bathtub on top of the chem building. Sadly this was before cellphone cameras were in widespread use.

  99. Jan Müller says:

    I found my fair share of cyanide, mercury and other stuff but that seems to be the norm. The most horrifying story about strange old bottles in a lab was told to me during a “Nachsitzung” (eating and drinking with the speaker after his talk). He was the head of the local police lab and when he was younger some kids were poisoned after playing at a old factory. His task was to go into the factory lab and do some presorting of the chemicals for disposing. It worked like a triage and some simple categories were used. During the sorting he found two 1 L brown glass bottles filled with a liquid and he put the label “likely solvent” on them and the bottles were removed for off-site storage. Fortunately every single container of chemicals was tested afterwards. Two days later he received a phone call and was informed that his “likely solvent” was 2 kg of pure Tabun. His heart stopped beating for a while…

    The owner of the factory was Dr. Stoltzenberg and he has quite an interesting vitae when it comes to chemical weapons: (English version lacks a lot of details on Wikipedia)

  100. Chanel Osram says:

    Bottle of Sandoz branded LSD in a safe.

    Different kind of dangerous.

  101. David says:

    I’ve oft said I come here for the great articles, but I stay for the comment sections.

    I stand by my assertion.

  102. Ryan says:

    I had a story about hand samples of radioactive rocks kept in a small unventilated closet in a Geology department building, but that doesn’t seem like it was as serious as it once did. The various samples of asbestos shared with the undergrads in introductory mineralogy also seems rather minor.

  103. mfernflower says:

    Does finding a 15 ml tube of Serratia marcescens left in a fridge for 5 years count?

  104. Roggy says:

    Cleaning up an office after a professor of organic chemistry had left we found a full bottle of 500 g of Pseudoephedrine. what made it more fun was it had been driven across the border by another faculty member ” when you come, please just bring that box of research chemicals I left in my old office”. Fortunately he didn’t get stopped. Now hes gone we are left with the problem that since we don’t have an invoice we can’t report it to the authorities (this is a Gulf country and we are thinking long jail sentences at the least). in the end we decided to burn the material in the fumehood and no one was any the wiser.

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