Some question security of campus labs

“Can I just throw this away?” a student asked, jiggling an empty cologne can between his fingers.

Christine DiMeglio, an organic chemistry professor and laboratory supervisor, instructed the student on how to dispose of the can and then smiled as she glanced around the organic chemistry lab, which was bustling with students wearing protective goggles.

“All of our students are very careful about safety here,” DiMeglio said.

But just next door, a connected lab filled with chemicals and equipment used by advanced chemistry classes was unlocked and unattended. The laboratory rooms are located in Sterling Chemistry Lab, a building that requires no key cards or identification for entrance.

Though careful procedures are in place to protect the physical safety of students and scientists working in labs, security against trespassers is not as tight. Laboratory doors in Becton, Sterling and Osborn Memorial Laboratories are sometimes left unlocked when lab staff is not directly monitoring the open rooms. It is possible for anyone to walk into these science buildings during working hours and, for some, after hours.

University Security Director George Aylward said the school has separate policies for locking different buildings at various hours.

“It depends on the needs of occupants and purpose of the building,” he said.

Susan Daria Burhans, a security educator with the University Police, said rules balance safety with easy access to facilities for students, faculty and staff, but newer buildings may have tighter security.

“Many facilities, including all new construction, are moving toward having electronic access control,” Burhans wrote in an e-mail.

Director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety Elan Gandsman said, in accordance with the Patriot Act, OEHS has assessed the risk of various hazardous materials used on campus and sent its findings to the appropriate emergency personnel and University departments.

“OEHS and Yale Security have developed specific security plans for all areas involved in the receipt, storage, use, disposal or transport of hazardous materials,” Gandsman wrote in an e-mail.

But students said security is not as tight in undergraduate teaching labs. While these facilities house some chemicals that could be easily found at a hardware store, others are generally harder to acquire and could be used as ingredients for explosives, psychotropic drugs and lethal agents if stolen. Students in the introductory biology lab course have access to ether, and chemistry labs use chemicals which can be combined to create nitroglycerin and cyanide gas.

The most serious chemical, radioactive and biological hazards used in University science labs are generally monitored with greater vigilance than are the more common chemicals used in undergraduate teaching labs.

Gary Brudvig, chair of the Chemistry Department, said there are not “any hard and fast rules” about what types of chemicals can and cannot be used in undergraduate labs.

Kesi Chen ’07 said she has noticed that empty labs containing chemicals are sometimes left unlocked when a class leaves the room for an activity.

“There have been times when we’ve left the lab room to go a lecture, and the doors are kept unlocked until we get back,” Chen said. “I think it is curious that the labs are left open, since really anyone can just walk into the building and down that hall.”

Saheli Sadanand ’07, who has taken general and organic chemistry labs, said the lab manager is not always present when students enter unlocked labs in Sterling Memorial Laboratory to finish experiments or pick up graded work.

“Also, many of the lab rooms are connected, so it really only takes one unlocked door to get into a number of rooms,” she said.

Sadenand said she is not too concerned about theft, partly because students usually keep most of their chemicals locked in drawers when they are not conducting experiments, and lab managers usually put away any chemicals that are left out. But she said bottles are sometimes left under chemistry hoods in unlocked and unattended rooms.

The chemicals and equipment usually found in unlocked labs are not those considered the most hazardous by the OEHS. But these items are difficult for the average person to acquire and often carry a hefty price tag.

While searching for a friend in Becton, Amanda Wittenstein ’07 said, she peered into several open lab rooms and noticed many pieces of equipment had been left unattended.

Despite the low levels of building security, DiMeglio said there has not been a theft at Sterling Memorial Laboratory over the last few years. She said she is more concerned about students coming in to work on experiments alone than theft or vandalism.

Lab staff members keep close tabs on which chemicals should be where, DiMeglio said, and the majority of chemicals are kept in storerooms that are always attended.

“Because we have a very structured way that we conduct ourselves, with someone always checking the lab at the beginning and end of the day, we are very aware of how things should look,” she said. “Our number one priority is safety.”

DiMeglio said research laboratory security in Sterling Memorial Laboratory is the responsibility of the principal investigator in charge of a particular lab. She said the primary investigators lock their own doors and would likely recognize if someone tampered with their lab.

While building security is less tangible inside campus laboratories, measures to protect individuals’ personal safety are prominently displayed.

DiMeglio said expired chemicals are disposed of, and all chemical waste is labeled as hazardous. Her lab tests gas hoods daily to make sure dangerous fumes do not fill the room, she said.

Chemistry professor Frederick Ziegler, who unofficially manages safety issues in the Chemistry Department, said very strict procedures are in place to regularly check that everyone in labs wears goggles and that safety showers are in working condition.

While eyewash stations ensure physical safety, some say lab security may be lax.
Ashley Day
While eyewash stations ensure physical safety, some say lab security may be lax.

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