December 10, 2004
Environmental Studies 220
Internship Final Report
The purpose of my internship was to evaluate how chemicals used in labs at Whitman College are managed with the intention of determining how the system could be improved to make it more environmentally sound.
The goals of my work were to find out:
Who is responsible for purchasing chemicals for labs at Whitman
What the purchasing process entails
If there is a reuse program in place
If there is an inventory maintained of chemicals on campus
Who can access the inventory, so they know what chemicals might be available to use instead of purchasing new
How Whitman avoids having to dispose of excess, out-dated chemicals
What chemicals are purchased in a school year, their amounts, and whether more benign substitutes are sought
How Whitman determines which chemicals are toxic
What rules and regulations Whitman falls under and who the overseeing administration is
How often instructors are made aware of changes in the inventory
How student research (such as that done for theses) affects the chemical ordering and disposal process
How it is determined what chemicals need to be disposed of and what is done when this occurs
How professors feel about the inventory/Chemical Management System, what suggestions they have for its improvement, and whether they would find a chemical excess exchange program with other colleges in the area useful
I met with my internship sponsor, Sandra Cannon, throughout the semester and laid out the aforementioned goals. She provided me with some websites of chemical distribution and manufacturing companies so I could get a better idea of how chemicals are purchased and what products and services are provided. To prepare and get a better idea of what I was getting into, I read a report of a similar project that was done entitled Making Forsyth Green: An Experiment in Laboratory Procurement Practices by Debra Sorocco. This project dealt with general lab equipment in addition to chemicals, but my main focus is on chemicals.
I found out that Karen Smith is the woman in charge of purchasing chemicals for the Chemistry Department. I set up a couple meetings with her during the semester and also communicated with her over email. She was able to give me most of the information I needed about the Chemistry Department's stockroom management.
There is an inventory maintained of chemicals already available on campus. This inventory is made available to professors in hard copy and by email at the beginning of the year. In my second meeting with Sandra, we both wondered whether this was enough to keep the professors adequately informed about what chemicals are available throughout the year, since the amount of chemicals available in the stockroom is changing all the time. An idea we came up with was the possibility of creating some sort of database or posting the Excel spreadsheet with the constant chemical updates online so that professors would always have the most recent information easily at hand. Something like this might help prevent chemicals from sitting and going unused in the stockroom. However, when I sent an email out to the professors asking them about the inventory system, none cited the once-a-year update as being an issue. If an instructor goes to the stockroom and a chemical that is on his or her copy of the inventory is no longer there, Karen is contacted and more of that chemical is ordered. Even though this does not seem to be a problem for professors, I still wonder if it would be beneficial to provide professors with more up-to-date information. For instance, if a chemical that the stockroom did not previously have is ordered in the middle of the year by one instructor, other instructors may not be aware of the availability of that chemical until the following year. It is unclear to me at this time whether this is a significant concern, but it is something that may warrant further investigation.
As far as a reuse program goes, extra amounts of chemicals are accounted for in the inventory, so it is possible to avoid disposing of any chemicals. The problem, however, is that it is up to the professors to check the inventory, and it is common for the more specialized chemicals to simply sit unused in the stockroom for the remainder of their shelf life before being thrown away. It seems that it might be beneficial to organize some sort of consortium with the Walla Walla Community College and Walla Walla College . This could potentially save a significant amount of waste. I asked the professors about this possibility in the email I sent to them, and it seemed to me from their responses that this was not something they had considered before. Overall, they are satisfied with the way the current system works. Despite this, a consortium still could become a great resource. It may be that the only way to realize the potential of such an arrangement would be to do some more research and investigation into the real impacts it would have. I might recommend this for an internship in another semester.
The majority of the chemicals used during the school year are purchased in July, at the beginning of the fiscal year, and most come from VWR, Sigma-Aldrich, or Fisher. Karen tries to purchase as close to the amount needed for the year as she can, but the possibilities are limited as far as minimum purchase requirements that distributors and manufacturers have. Also, it isn't possible to anticipate every chemical that is going to be needed throughout the year, so instructors submit individual requests at different times during both semesters. It is up to instructors to seek out more benign substitutes for the lab experiments they conduct. I know that in the General Chemistry labs they use substances like fruit juices in some experiments instead of more harmful chemicals, but I did not get a feel for what is done for other classes. What I did learn from some of the websites I looked at is that with some experiments it is difficult to use substitutes because of small differences in chemical makeup. These differences can lead to inaccurate results or simply make the experiment more difficult to conduct. I came to the conclusion that I wouldn't be focusing so much on finding alternatives to chemicals as much as evaluating the overall system operation here, but it is something that could be pursued in the future. It seems that if we really would like to make a switch over to more benign substitutes, the way to go about it would be for a student to do most of the research and make suggestions to the professors, since they have little time to do such research themselves.
I learned a good deal about the way chemicals are dealt with throughout the semester and why things operate the way they currently do. The toxicity of chemicals is determined by the Hazardous Materials Identification Guide (HMIG). The HMIG is used to rate the impact the chemical has on health by quantifying the lethal dose, how flammable it is, and how reactive it is. Each of these categories is listed on the container and is rated from zero to four, zero signifying essentially no risk and four signifying the greatest risk. It also lists the protective equipment that should be used when handling the chemical. An explanation and example of the HMIG can be found at http://chemlabs.uoregon.edu/Safety/HMIG.html . Whitman College is under the jurisdiction of the Washington Department of Ecology (under the EPA) and employees are covered by OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Association).
When chemicals are disposed of, they are first placed into an outdoor storage area. In the summer, the safety director arranges for disposal with a licensed contractor. The contractor packages the chemicals, separating organics from inorganics. There are sixteen different containers that the chemicals are separated into. There is an organic and an inorganic container for each of the following: poisons, oxidizers, flammables, corrosive acids, corrosive bases, water reactives, spontaneously combustible substances, and not otherwise specified. Organic chemicals are incinerated, while inorganic chemicals are taken to a landfill or chemical disposal site. Throughout this process, Whitman is responsible for the chemicals and is liable if they are dealt with improperly.
My awareness of chemical management systems and how they are environmentally relevant has increased immensely throughout my research. While my work has not made any concrete changes in the system here, I feel there are several opportunities to continue on with this project in subsequent internships. Researching more benign chemical substitutes, setting up a consortium with other schools (or simply posting Whitman's inventory so other schools can see it, too), and also looking at the environmental impact the non-chemical materials and equipment used in labs have in terms of types of materials used (like recycled-material content of paper towels) would be worthwhile aspects of the system to examine. Professor Jim Russo mentioned over email that “the biggest challenge is the communication and sharing of materials and dealing with waste ACROSS the several areas of the College which use chemicals and generate waste...chemistry, biology, physics, art.” I think this brings up a very interesting aspect of the management of waste on campus, and I'm sure that would make for a very productive follow-up project.
This has been a good learning experience for me so far because I just never gave that much thought to what was going on in the labs on campus and how this affects the environment before now. Even for the fairly environmentally-minded students, I feel it is easy to forget that all that stuff we are using in our chemistry lab has to end up somewhere. Beyond that, the disposal process involves more than just putting chemicals in a container and sending them to the landfill. I am getting great satisfaction from knowing that what I am working on can actually initiate a positive change.
Sandra Cannon (sponsor): firstname.lastname@example.org, 525-8849
Karen Smith (chemistry stockroom manager): email@example.com
Professor Jim Russo: firstname.lastname@example.org
Other Information Sources
Environmentally Preferable Lab Product Vendors
Bio-rad - http://www.bio-rad.com/
Continental Lab - http://www.CLPDirect.com
Corning Life Sciences - http://corning.com/lifesciences
Invitrogen “SYBERSAFE” - http://www.probes.com/products/sybrsafe/
Lagasse Paper http://www.lagassenet.com/
Phoenix Biomedical - http://www.phoenix-biomed.com/catalogue-na.htm
Other Lab Product Vendors
Amersham - http://www.amershambiosciences.com
Brinkmann-Eppendorf - http://www.brinkmann.com
Denville Scientific - http://www.denvillescientific.com
Fisher Scientific - http://www.fishersci.com
New England Biolabs - http://www.neb.com
Qiagen - http://www.qiagen.com
Sigma-Aldrich - http://www.sigmaaldrich.com
Stratagene - http://www.stratagene.com
USA Scientific - http://www.usascientific.com
VWR - http://www.vwrsp.com
Green Lab Products
Making Forsyth Green: An Experiment in Laboratory Procurement Practices
The Forsyth Institute
Department of Cytokine Biology
140 The Fenway
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: (617) 262-5200 x405
Fax: (617) 456-7731