ABC of Safety in the Biological Sciences




All spillage's particularly of solvents must be cleaned up as quickly as possible to prevent fire and explosion. The use of paper towels can increase the hazard by accelerating evaporation and providing additional flammable material and should be avoided when a solvent is involved. Paper towelling is also unsuitable for spills of concentrated acid or strong alkali.

The best means of controlling spillage's is with the use of inert absorbent materials, which can be scooped into containers, sealed and disposed of safely9, or purpose designed spill clean up kits. Inert absorbent material is supplied as loose granules, in pillows or in tubes. Tubes can be used to surround a spill and restrict the area of contamination whilst pillows can absorb huge quantities of spilled substance and be disposed of easily.

Acid and Alkali Spills
Concentrated acids and caustic substances produce irritating and harmful fumes as well as causing severe and painful burns to exposed skin and eyes. In the case of skin contact immediately flush the affected area with running water for a least 15 minutes. Remove any contaminated clothing. When cleaning the spill if adequate ventilation of the area is not provided an approved respiratory or breathing apparatus should be worn. Rubber gloves, goggles and laboratory coat must be worn. Neutralising concentrated acids and alkalis produces heat.

Solvent Spills
Flammable solvents present a serious fire and explosion hazard. Many organic compounds are also highly toxic. If the spill is of a flammable compound immediately remove all possible sources of ignition and extinguish any naked flames. Provide maximum ventilation for the spill area and avoid inhalation of the fumes and skin contact with the solvent. When cleaning the spill wear protective clothing including rubber gloves, goggles and an approved respiratory or breathing apparatus.

If a strong oxidiser (including peroxides) or other highly unstable organic compound is spilled do not attempt to clean the spill but seek professional advice (Fire Brigade or a chemical hazards expert).

Mercury Spills
Liquid mercury has a tendency to break into many small globules when spilled increasing the amount of vapour released into surrounding air.

Mercury is very toxic and should not be allowed to contaminate air or water. Skin contact should be avoided. Never try to pick up mercury with your fingers. As mercury is attracted to gold, copper and silver remove anything of this nature before cleaning the spill. Wear protective clothing comprising a long sleeved laboratory coat or gown, rubber gloves and a face mask and maintain adequate ventilation in the spill area.

When cleaning up spills it is important not to use methods that will either break up the globules further or heat the mercury as both would increase the amount of vapour entering the surrounding air.126

Collect mercury droplets immediately after a spill. This can be done by using the following:

  • an aspirator with a capillary tube attached to collect tiny droplets.
  • a hand held pipette with a rubber bulb attached.
  • a water pump attached to a pipette.
  • strips of adhesive tape.
  • mercury absorption compounds for fine droplets of that are difficult to pipette.
    • mercury vapour absorbent compounds.

Collected liquid mercury should be stored in tightly closed containers, preferably under water or glycerol. Following this the spill area should be decontaminated using 20% sodium thiosulphate, sulphur powder (takes up to 24 hours), zinc dust or a mixture of zinc dust and sawdust. Mercury spill kits are also available commercially.


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