Almost no information has emerged since the 18 December laboratory explosion that killed chemist Meng Xiangjian, 32, a postdoc at prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing. Initial reports suggested that Meng was working with tert-butyl lithium, which ignites on contact with air. It is the same material involved in the lab fire that caused the 2009 death of University of California (UC), Los Angeles, research associate Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji. In that case, the lab chief, chemist Patrick Harran, and UC faced criminal charges for safety violations related to the fire. More recent reports, however, state that Meng was doing an experiment that involved hydrogen, but do not give further details. (Update: Tsinghua chemistry department chair Xun Wang told Chemical & Engineering News that, “[a]ccording to the investigation of the government police department as well as our own investigation, the tragedy was caused by the accidental explosion of a hydrogen gas cylinder,” but clarification was not forthcoming about how or why the cylinder exploded.)
One hopes that information will soon be forthcoming about the nature of the fatal incident and the failures of safety practices that allowed it to happen, which could lead to improvements in safety. In the United States, the recent decision of the AAAS Chemistry Section to rescind its controversial nomination of Harran as a AAAS Fellow has focused attention on lab safety. As the Tsinghua fatality shows, however, it is an issue that demands attention wherever in the world scientists pursue research.
Update hat tip: Jyllian N. Kemsley of Chemical & Engineering News