BC student hurt in lab accident

A chemical reaction that injured a Boston College student caused the evacuation of the Merkert Chemistry Center. A chemical reaction that injured a Boston College student caused the evacuation of the Merkert Chemistry Center. (Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff)
By Ben Wolford and Vivian Yee
Globe Correspondents / June 26, 2011

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A Boston College chemistry student was injured when a beaker exploded during an experiment yesterday morning, cutting her face and forcing the evacuation of Merkert Chemistry Center, officials said.

The chemistry student was working alone in the lab with a small amount of thionyl chloride, a substance commonly used in organic chemistry experiments, when it exploded, according to fire department spokesman Steve MacDonald.

The doctoral student, Hee Yeon Cho, received cuts on her face and minor burns on her hands, he said.

BC spokesman Jack Dunn said Cho, who had recently finished her fourth year in the program, subsequently left the lab to take care of the cuts while fellow graduate students notified BC police. The university then notified the Boston Fire Department.

“This was a minor chemical reaction that caused the beaker she was using to break,’’ Dunn said.

Fire crews and a hazmat team responded at 10:47 a.m. and cleared the scene by 1 p.m., MacDonald said. Throughout the early afternoon, some responders’ vehicles remained at 2609 Beacon St. in Brighton, but people were allowed in and out of the building.

After going through a series of showers in a mobile decontamination unit, Cho was taken to St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, where she was treated for injuries that do not appear life-threatening, MacDonald said. No one else was injured, Dunn said.

After the beaker broke, Cho put a paper towel over the cut on her cheek and then drove herself home, said Chris Schuster, 25, a graduate chemistry student at the scene.

Her return home complicated the cleanup effort: Crews also had to decontaminate her car and her apartment in Brighton, MacDonald said.

A chemistry professor came to the lab and determined responders should dilute the thionyl chloride with “large amounts of water,’’ MacDonald said, and BC brought in a cleaning company.

It is still unclear what caused the reaction, he said.

Thionyl chloride reacts strongly with moisture and can be dangerous to humans if vapors are inhaled, said Lawrence Scott, Cho’s professor. The chemical can be used to make mustard gas and nerve toxins.

“Honestly, I think she was probably never expecting this to happen. This seems like a somewhat standard procedure,’’ Schuster said of the experiment.

Schuster said chemistry students at BC are required to take a lab safety training course. While it is uncommon for students to work alone, the department’s guidelines for lab safety do not forbid it, according to a document posted online by the university’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety.

Still, researchers are warned not to work with hazardous or potentially explosive compounds by themselves, said Kai Hong, 26, another chemistry graduate student who was going to the building yesterday.

Ben Wolford can be reached at Vivian Yee can be reached at