What Rules?

Ref Wikipedia

What should happen here? Who should we turn to if this happens? How can we prevent this?  Why, if this should happen, you must do this. Oh, how things have changed! William Henry Perkin thought nothing of the risks he took to change how fabric was dyed in the nineteenth century.  (I will return to him later). Not so if you were Em. Em would have sleepless nights if it wasn’t for the rules of compliance she spends her days writing. 

Back in the 1950s, I was in our new school science room.  Every student had access to a Bunsen burner gas outlet. Every two students shared a sink to clean equipment. We had beam balances to calculate the chemicals we use. A closed section of the room was reserved for experiments with chemicals that gave off noxious fumes.

I liked science partly because of the nurturing skills of our teacher Norm Stewart ( earlier story). Other than his encouragement I had no confidence I could ever remember the periodic tables. I was so sure memorising them was beyond me I stopped studying science at form four. In my last year of science, our classes were mainly to do with recording our lessons according to the rules of school science. The classes emphasised the importance of accurately recording what we did so another scientist could reproduce, by the same method, the actions we took. The next rule of scientific investigation is to leave your work open to criticism. At that stage your method can be refuted if a reviewer should reach a different result following the methods specified. Leading to the ultimate step, the conclusion. The conclusion means the work has been rigorous and scientifically responsible. Which leads me to what I did without these steps of care.

After school, I did make my own experiments with chemicals I had bought from the chemist’s shop. In an earlier lesson, we had made copper crystals. Experimenting, at home, I made one about the size of a AU 50 cent coin and was pretty pleased with my effort. I moved on and made some gunpowder, just because I could. And this is where compliance officers, like Em, would become very anxious if they should every find out what went on unsupervised. At school the room was filled with dangerous stuff that was often untended and left in the hands of the uninitiated.

At school we played with Mercury and let it run through our fingers without any warning it was dangerous. Just as we watched how magnesium ignited easily at a high temperature, bright white light, without wearing protective eyewear or clothing. One experiment seemed to reoccur any time of the year at school. The senior boys would amuse themselves making hydrogen sulphide gas (rotten air gas). This gas was intentionally made outside the ante-room, the place with the exhaust system, and it stank. All too often experiments, outside classroom hours filled the corridors with a putrid stench.

Long before any science experience at school I had watched, and copied adults, melting down lead on the fire,  and I also made lead fishing sinkers. No one gave any thought to the fact the fumes of melting lead are carcinogenic. In the metal workshop at school, even first formers would use hydrochloric acid to clean metal with no other protection other than a calico apron. These boys, who mostly came from farms, were familiar with the dangers of sulphuric acid in lead batteries. So, I suppose, the school reasoned any danger was not wholly unexpected in a work environment. Not that that decision would stand the test of reasonableness if acid ate into a boy’s clothes, or burned his skin.

About the age I was in the school science room, a century before, young William Perkin went to work as a chemist with August Wilhelm Von Hoffman at the Royal College of Chemistry, London. In his holidays he made an accidental discovery. In a temporary laboratory, with a coal derivative — aniline — he produced a dye with an intense purple colour. (They dyed fabric with natural materials prior to his discovery.) His new colour, Tyrian purple, was a new hue from which he built a fortune, and with further experimentation he produced dyes of other colours that changed the entire British dye industry, and it altered the colours used around the world, in all manner of things.

If risk managers existed in those days, and they were aware of the dangers these new dyes were to health, they could have saved many lives if they had banned their use. Fortunately, science does not fix things outright as, “we know all there is to know about —-.” . It allows for new people to challenge the status quo. In time, the carcinogenic nature of these dyes was discovered, and their use was banned in foodstuffs and for use in clothing. The interesting thing is, if they were banned outright medical science would have been denied a valuable tool in fighting cancer. Today those same dyes are used in nuclear medicine to trace the movement of chemical treatments that save lives. I am unsure this proves compliance officers need a crystal ball to predict all possibilities, but it does seem it is impossible to ever imagine all the risks one might encounter.

Unlike young William, I never studied Chemistry. To this day I would be hard put to name twenty elements, and I have no idea which subset of them each one belongs. My chemistry skill finishes at trying to make a good espresso each morning with ground beans and pressured hot water. And with that I am well pleased.

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