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July 7, 2010 Volume 31, No. 33

Reducing research risks


Workers last week cleared debris from a biochemistry lab in Schweitzer Hall that exploded June 28. Following an inspection, scientists and students returned to work in Schweitzer later that week. An investigation will determine if any additional actions are necessary to prevent this type of accident from occurring in the future. Nicholas Benner photo

Back to work

MU is calling on campus and outside experts to investigate Schweitzer blast

It may be a bit premature to say things are back to normal at Schweitzer Hall following a June 28 explosion in a biochemistry laboratory there. Plywood covers the windows of the lab on the northeast side of Schweitzer, but scientists and students are back to work.

Officials have declared the building structurally sound and safe for researchers to resume activities in other parts of the building. An investigation, which is standard operating procedure in such situations, will determine if any additional actions are necessary to prevent this type of accident from occurring in the future.

Four individuals, including a graduate student, a research scientist and two post-doctoral fellows, were injured in the blast and transported to University Hospital. Following the incident, crews from MU Campus Facilities and Environmental Health and Safety assessed the damage and are cleaning the laboratories. After an inspection, crews deemed the rest of the building structurally safe and allowed researchers and staff access to the building to resume work.

In addition to a rigorous inspection of Schweitzer Hall to ensure its structural integrity, MU officials are investigating the events that led up to the explosion, Chancellor Brady Deaton said during an interview on KFRU radio last week.

“We have been looking at every detail of this,” Deaton said. “We have very good oversight over these kinds of issues, but there are always some risks associated with scientific work, and I think the public should recognize that because of all the benefits we get from science. In this case, the researchers were very careful to look at themselves, asking, ‘What could we have done differently to have prevented this?’ ”

Following the explosion, an official with the Columbia Fire Department initially attributed the incident to human error. The fire department later retracted that original assessment. Deaton said it is not completely clear what triggered the explosion. Investigators are exploring a number of hypotheses and have consulted with campus and national experts, including a national laboratory.

“We will be drawing on both internal and external experts across the world, as needed, to ensure that we have the absolute safest environment possible for our faculty, staff and students,” Deaton said. “That is our predominant concern. We are going to look at every detail until we get to the bottom of it.”

Three of the four people injured in the accident were treated at University Hospital and released that day. Last week, Deaton visited the one individual who was hospitalized overnight. “She was doing quite well; she was just very thankful that this turned out as well as it did,” he said. “Under the circumstances, I think everyone is very, very pleased that there were so few injuries.”

Accidents can occur sometimes under the best of circumstances, he said. “The laboratory is operated by one of our absolutely stellar scientists, Dr. Judy Wall,” Deaton said. “She is doing some of the most important work in the world in her field today. Her laboratory reflected that; it was beautifully organized, very well kept. She has some of the top people in the nation working with her. So, under the absolute best circumstances, with one of our best researchers, an accident can happen.”

Wall’s research focuses on using anaerobic bacteria to remove radioactive metals from the environment. Over the years, she has been funded by a number of federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.

MU officials have said that the laboratory will be completely rebuilt.