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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Explosive chemicals found in Noyce twice in one week

By Eva Hill
hilleva@grinnell.edu

A chemistry department inventory, prompted by the discovery of a potentially dangerous chemical substance in the Noyce Science Center last Thursday, unearthed additional containers of the same substance earlier this week. Both discoveries resulted in a precautionary evacuation of the building while the state bomb squad destroyed the containers. However, it remains unclear why and how multiple containers of possibly expired diethyl ether were not found until recently.

Diethyl ether is a solvent that is commonly used in chemistry, but it can be dangerous when handled incorrectly, according to chemistry professor and department chair Stephen Sieck. If a container of diethyl ether is opened, peroxide crystals may grow inside over time. These crystals can explode when they experience friction. To avoid this problem, each bottle comes with an expiration date label from the manufacturer so that the diethyl ether can be disposed of in a safe and timely manner.

However, the label was missing from the bottle found last week. James Shropshire, director of Campus Safety, wrote in an email to The S&B that Campus Safety was alerted to the substance “by a professional staff member who was responsible for preparing a standard hazardous waste shipment” that there was no expiration label on the bottle, but that “the label was worn and discolored, and the bottle was in poor condition. This suggested that the bottle was quite old.”

Sieck wrote in an email to The S&B that “because the department did not know [the bottle’s] origin … extreme caution was used moving forward.”

Campus Safety called the Grinnell Fire Department, and the fire department contacted the state fire marshal to coordinate a response. Without a label, there was no way to tell the exact age of the bottle, and there was no visible evidence of the presence of peroxide crystals. Opening the lid of the container could have jarred any crystals, according to Grinnell Fire Chief Dan Sicard. As a result, employees of Campus Safety, the fire department and explosive and bomb technicians from the state fire marshal’s office decided to clear the building “out of [an] abundance of caution” before transporting and destroying the container.

With Campus Safety and Facilities Management staff blocking entrances to Noyce, local and state safety officials carried the container out of Noyce, brought it to the College golf course, attached a detonator to it, buried it and detonated it underground. Sicard said that this method was safest in this situation because “there’s no residue to worry about, there’s no chance that there’s going to be any leftover hazard,” he said.

It is not clear how multiple bottles of diethyl ether in need of controlled detonation managed to avoid detection. Usually, Sieck wrote, “the [chemistry] department uses an inventory and labeling system on all our chemicals. The Chemical Hygiene Officer takes care of this and keeps track of the dates to prevent this sort of event from occurring.” Sharon Isley, chemical hygiene officer for the College, was unavailable to comment for this article.

A similar evacuation of Noyce and controlled underground detonation occurred on Wednesday morning of this week after an additional inspection in Noyce resulted in the discovery of more possibly volatile diethyl ether. An email from Campus Safety regarding the incident also noted that “during the comprehensive inventory, safety experts identified some additional stable materials that will be removed in the near future out of an abundance of caution.”

Emergency services responded to a call from Campus Safety last Thursday regarding potentially explosive chemicals. Photo by Andy Pavey
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