For schools and laboratories, purchasing chemical supplies online can be an efficient and easy way to maintain laboratory stocks. Prices can be compared, and online purchasing often represents significant savings, helping manage small research budgets. However, it is important to know how to safely order chemicals online, as there are some pitfalls that can occur with shipping and handling of chemicals that will not only erase any potential cost savings or convenience, but can create unforeseen regulatory headaches, environmental consequences, potential injury, and legal liability.
Your First Stop: Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)
When considering the potential hazards of chemicals being ordered, it is important to refer to a chemical database and/or the material safety data sheet (MSDS). Although there are general safety rules, each chemical has particular traits and properties that make it unique, requiring individualized handling procedures. In general, chemical hazards are grouped into four categories: flammability, corrosiveness, toxicity, and reactivity. These characteristics will dictate how each chemical is packaged, shipped, received, and stored. Compressed gas, for example, must be clearly labeled, have a valve protection mechanism in place, and be transported in an upright position. Corrosive chemicals must be packaged in special containers. Oxidizing chemicals may react with other substances to combust more easily, so they need to be shipped and stored separately from flammable materials. Laboratories must have the capability to handle, manage and store chemicals when they are received, so as to prevent deterioration and minimize worker exposure to hazardous materials. Special storage may be required, or the timing of delivery may need to be closely monitored.
Bulk Purchase: Not Always a Bargain
One important consideration in acquiring a chemical is to be aware of its life cycle. The reactive compounds in certain chemicals may decompose before they can be used. Laboratories may be stuck with large quantities of a chemical that was obtained cheaply but becomes a liability when extra amounts are not needed. For example, one research project received a donated 55-gallon container of an experimental toluene. Only a small quantity was used, but the remainder could not be disposed of through commercial incinerators in bulk form. Thousands of dollars in disposal costs were incurred, turning the donation into a liability. It is good practice, therefore, to only order sufficient quantities required for the short term, rather than making a bulk purchase deal for larger quantities that may end up being unusable. Waste management in general must be considered, particularly when using unstable materials with a short shelf life.
Look for Applicable Regulations
Specific occupational health and safety regulations apply to many chemicals ordered online, and shipping and receiving of explosive, reactive, inflammatory and highly toxic chemicals must be done in accordance with local regulatory procedures. Many schools and laboratories have additional specific guidelines that must be followed. Special consideration should also be given to nanotechnology and nanomaterials. Research is ongoing in the emerging field of nanotechnology, but many of the hazards are not yet well-known. These substances react differently and may be more easily dispersed, so laboratories need to look for the most up-to-date research available when handling nanomaterials and follow applicable safety recommendations.
Because there are so many different types of chemical compounds, each with its own particular trait, referring to the MSDS label or a chemical database is one of the most important ways to ensure that your laboratory can safely order and manage the chemicals purchased online. It is also good practice for organizations and school laboratories to purchase online supplies from approved distributors who are reputable and knowledgeable in the handling and shipping of chemicals.
Alan Schuster is a recently retired high school chemistry teacher. He’s passionate about all things science and tech and loves blogging about both any time he gets the chance. Click here for more lab supply info.
Capitol Scientific. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=4911&page=63
Prudent Practices in the Laboratory: Handling and Disposal of Chemicals. National Academies Press. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=4911&page=63
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