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Labs and Pharmaceutical Facilities

University laboratories and pharmaceutical research facilities have sensitive equipment and technology to facilitate tests, research and development. Technicians and researchers also require quantities of some dangerous and sometimes toxic gases and compounds to perform tasks such as inverting, freezing, chilling, extraction or purification. Precise specialty gases are often necessary in order to conduct their research.

For the health and safety of lab and research personnel, as well as for the preservation of the research, it’s vital that the appropriate sensors are installed and monitored to detect and prevent against leaks or potential explosions.

Gases Found in Pharmaceutical Laboratories

Pharmaceutical laboratories commonly use certain gases during the production process as a sort of “invisible helper” in contact with the products. For example, nitrogen might be used as an inerting agent, while carbon dioxide is sometimes used for extraction and purification.

To adhere to regulatory requirements, labs should have sensors in place to monitor three primary gases:

  • O² (Oxygen)
  • NH³ (Ammonia)
  • HCN

The Risks

Oxygen is used for fermentation in drug development processes, and sometimes for flushing. However, it is dangerous in the lab environment because it facilitates combustion and some other gases used in pharmaceutical laboratories are highly flammable. When stored at high pressure, such as from a cylinder, oxygen gas can react violently.

Ammonia is used in liquid or gas form for the ammonolysis of esters, acid anhydrides, and acyl and sulfonyl halides. It is also used in the replacement (by ammonolysis) of halogen, hydroxyl, sulfonic acid, and labile nitro groups. Liquid ammonia is also used:

  • As a solvent for alkylation’s and dehydrohalogenation with sodamide
  • To dissolve alkali metals (in the absence of catalysts)
  • To reduce metals in ammonium salts, free elements, hydrides, halides, and cyanides, oxides and sulfides
  • To prompt acid-base reactions involving ammonium salts, and amides, imides and nitrides
  • For the ammonolysis of inorganic salts

Exposure to ammonia presents a serious health risk, resulting in chemical-type burns to the skin, eyes, and lungs.

Hydrogen cyanide (HCN), is a poisonous and flammable liquid that is used in the pharmaceutical industry for chemical synthesis and the production of synthetic fibers, plastics, dyes, and pesticides. HCN can be very dangerous because it boils at 25.6 °C (78.1 °F), which is only slightly above room temperature. HCN gases should be closely monitored with highly accurate sensors to mitigate risk of fire or explosion, or even minor exposure to employees as the IDLH level is only 50 ppm.

Gases Found in University Research Facilities

Gases are used in university research in some similar ways to pharmaceutical laboratories but are larger, and have a more diverse list of gases and other compounds are found in university research facilities, and still more are generated by the research and testing activities.

The most important common gases and compounds that these facilities must monitor include:

  • CO² (Carbon Dioxide)
  • CO (Carbon Monoxide)
  • NO² (Nitrogen Dioxide)
  • N2 (Nitrogen)
  • NH³ (Ammonia)
  • CFCs, HFCs, HCFCs

H²S (Hydrogen Sulfide)

The Risks

Carbon Dioxide is sometimes used for extraction and purification, but university research facilities are also researching new ways to capture carbon dioxide in order to combat climate change. The health risks of exposure to high levels of CO² can be quite serious, and the reaction can range from headaches, dizziness, restlessness, a tingling sensation, difficulty breathing, sweating, tiredness, increased heart rate, and elevated blood pressure, to even coma, asphyxia, and/or convulsions.

Carbon Monoxide is a health risk in a wide range of settings, but it’s a particular risk in university research facilities where scientists are working directly with the gas for organic chemical synthesis or when researching antidotes for carbon monoxide poisoning. By working with CO, scientists may be at higher risk of exposure to CO poisoning, which can be dangerous and may cause brain and heart damage, illness, coma, or even death. The OSHA PEL for CO is 50 parts per million (ppm). OSHA standards prohibit worker exposure to more than 50 parts of CO gas per million parts of air averaged during an 8-hour time period.

Nitrogen Dioxide is created when fuels are burned in different research activities. When there is a high concentration of NO² in the air, inhaling the gas can irritate airways and aggravate respiratory diseases. Longer exposure may increase your susceptibility to respiratory infections, or cause asthma to develop.

Nitrogen gas, found as N2, can be a safety hazard as it quickly displaces oxygen.  Liquid nitrogen and compressed nitrogen are widely used in lab and pharmaceutical operations to chill and freeze samples, and even a small spill can evaporate into a volume  of gas sufficient  to  displace the oxygen in  an enclosed  environment.

Ammonia is one of the most common industrial chemicals used for refrigeration, and may be found in university research facilities where chiller rooms and other refrigeration is needed to keep research materials at controlled cold temperatures. However, ammonia is extremely corrosive, and poses significant risk if a leak occurs. Exposure to ammonia can result in chemical-type burns to the skin, eyes, and lungs.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) or hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) refrigerants are used in university research to control temperature for compounds that must be stored in cold temperatures. Common HFC and HCFC refrigerants include:

  • R-404a
  • R-22
  • R-134a
  • R-410

Hydrogen Sulfide is an environmental toxin that has an odor of rotten eggs. It was originally thought to simply be an environmental pollutant and health risk for some occupations (primarily for sewer workers), but research has revealed that H²S is produced endogenously and plays critical physiological roles as a gasotransmitter. Research into the safe uses for hydrogen sulfide continues at universities and other scientific research centers. Exposure to high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide has been known to cause brain damage, long-term neurological conditions or death.