Gas leaks in Building 18
By Dave Watt
Last Friday, a release of corrosive hydrogen bromide gas forced an evacuation of the Camille Edouard Dreyfus Building (Building 18) at 11:30 am. No damage or injuries resulted from the release, although some graduate students remained in the building after the evacuation was ordered.
James S. Nowick PhD '90, working in Professor of Chemistry Julius Rebek Jr. PhD '70's lab on the first floor of the building, was running a chemical reaction when the valve attached to the HBr's gas cylinder malfunctioned, spewing a cloud of HBr into the lab.
Nowick said the cloud of gas grew too quickly to turn on the emergency flow on his fume hood, so he jumped back and threw everyone out of the lab. All of the students were out of the lab in less than a minute. After consulting with chemistry department officials, Nowick pulled the fire alarm to evacuate the building.
Half an hour later, the Cambridge fire department entered the building in green protective suits to discover that the relatively small gas cylinder had almost completely emptied, and most of the gas had dispersed.
According to Nowick, the HBr had mixed with the humid air to form a liquid solution which coated almost everything in the lab. "We came in here and tested the tabletops, and everything was pH 0," he explained.
No one was injured in the incident, including some fish in an aquarium about 10 feet from the gas cylinder. "The cover of the aquarium was pH 0, but the water inside was the same as when we left," said Nowick.