Magazine article Occupational Hazards

An Avoidable Tragedy

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

An Avoidable Tragedy

Article excerpt

That summer day last August probably started out the same as many others for Dartmouth College professor Karen Wetterhahn.

A world-reknown research chemist, she was working on a project to examine the effects of heavy metals on processes such as cell metabolism and the transfer of genetic information.

During a transfer procedure conducted under a fume hood, a drop, maybe two, of the rare toxic compound dimethylmercury spilled onto her latex gloves. In that instant, as the solution permeated the gloves and entered her body through her skin, Wetterhahn became a participant in her own experiment.

Mercury attacks the central nervous system. By January, Wetterhahn was losing her balance. Her speech was slurred and she was having poisoning ha trouble seeing and hearing. She was diagnosed with mercury poisoning, her blood containing 80 times the lethal dose. Three weeks after the diagnosis, she lapsed into a coma from which she would never wake.

Karen Wetterhahn died of acute mercury poisoning June 8 at the age of 48.

Her death has caused many researchers to question if their current methods of hand protection are adequate. John S. Winn, Ph.D., chairman of Dartmouth's chemistry department, said the tragedy has "opened the eyes" of many university researchers.

"Many of them told me that they would have done the same thing, would have worn latex gloves and thought they were protected," said Winn.

As the Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigates Wetterhahn's death, Winn and Michael B. Blayney, Ph.D., director of environmental health and safety for the college, have embarked on a crusade to educate other researchers about the proper handling of dimethylmercury.

They wrote a letter to Chemical and Engineering News, notifying readers about Wetterhahn's death and the quick and undetectable permeation of the dimethylmercury through her latex gloves. In their letter, Winn and Blayney suggested that scientists working with dimethylmercury wear highly resistant laminate gloves under a pair of long-cuffed, unsupported neoprene, nitrile or similar heavy-duty gloves.

According to them, all academic institutions need to make their scientists aware of the limitations of disposable gloves. Disposable latex and PVC gloves were not developed for use with hazardous or otherwise aggressive chemicals, said Blayney.

The challenge facing safety managers at many institutions, he added, is selecting appropriate gloves without limiting the researchers' abilities to perform their job functions. They must be adequately protected from hazards, but still be able to handle test tubes, beakers and other glassware, and also be able to perform the fine motor skills they need to operate microscopes and other equipment. …

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