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Chemical Accident Shuts Down Whitehead Institute

Cornelia Tsang
The Cambridge Hazardous Waste Response Team respond to a chemical spill at Whitehead Institute on Friday.

By Naveen Sunkavally

At chemical spill occurred at 3:30 p.m. last Friday in the fifth-floor solvent room of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

The Hazardous Materials Division of the Cambridge Fire Department responded and resolved the situation immediately, with minimal injuries incurred.

The MIT Campus Police received a dispatch call shortly afterwards. Their chief duties, according to Captain John E. Driscoll, were to "block the roads around the area, to reroute traffic, and secure the building."

"Within minutes, the building was evacuated, and the Fire Department responded," Nichols said.

The situation was officially over at 7 p.m., when officers were relieved from their duties, and the center was reopened.

Several chemicals involved

Eve Nichols, director of public affairs at Whitehead, said that one of the chemicals involved was dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), an important synthetic solvent and a substance used in the treatment in arthritis.

Deputy Jerry Reardon of the the Cambridge Fire Department confirmed the presence of DMSO and said that dimethyl sulfate was also involved.

Reardon said that the substances in the solvent room had been accidentally mixed into a bottle, which subsequently broke and emptied two quarts of each chemical onto the floor. A vapor from dimethyl sulfate was then released from the reaction, and there was a smell in the room, Nichols said.

"No biologicals [were] involved at all, only chemicals," Nichols said. "Nobody was hurt."

Reardon, however, stated that "two people supposedly went to the MIT infirmary, were treated and released."

Substances potentially hazardous

Reardon said that the major health effects of the substances involved were that they were carcinogenic, could damage the respiratory system, and that they can be readily absorbed through the skin and mucous membranes.

The Howard Hughs Medical Institute Laboratory Safety Manual lists other effects of these substances. DMSO, according to the manual, is only slightly toxic, causing itching and damage to the cornea after prolonged exposure.

Dimethyl sulfate, on the other hand, is extremely toxic, causing severe burning, vomiting, diarrhea, painful urination, shortness of breath, tightness of the chest, and possible death after prolonged exposure.

The spill added to the confusion around Whitehead last week that began when a car chase ended in a crash in front of the building.