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Home lab: Making room in a small space

Have you ever wanted a home lab? If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent your life trying to make room for various things you want to do. In my world, science was no exception to the rule. I was usually trying to find space for some experiment or another. It’s a constant struggle, and one I don’t think I’ll ever win as my interests grow and expand but the space does not. Here are a few tips I’ve learnt along the way to make a home lab a reality. Or at least a step closer.

Knowing what you need is sometimes a feat. Two good places to start are protocols and SDS (AKA MSDS) sheets. The protocol tells you the equipment and chemicals you’d need t perform a particular task, while the SDS sheets have information about how to store and handle the chemicals or solutions you might use. Combined you have your answer for how to set up your lab.

Safety is a big factor for a home lab.  

While things don’t need to be sterile room with a giant ventilation unit, you need to put safety in your mind as you proceed. After all, who is going to do the science if you injure yourself? So, let’s hit up some key points: Ventilation, removal of wastes, and confidence.

Ventilation

When you read an SDS sheet you’ll see a lot of things. Scan through to find information on if the chemical you’re using is toxic and targets the lungs. Also, see if it says “prevent dust.” These are key phrases that tell you that you need to work in a well ventilated area. Just making sure you have a well ventilated area, say the kitchen counter next to the vent for the stove, should work fine.

Now if the SDS sheet pulls a line like, “Could burn mucus membranes” you need a bit of an extra barrier. For this you don’t need a hood, though that would be awesome if you could set one up. Instead, a personal respirator should do you just fine.

Toxicity

cemetery, death, lifeMany, many things will cause you some problems in large doses. Hell, you can overdose on water. On the SDS sheet you’ll see two things to note: The type of toxicity it causes and the LD50. 

Why? Because you don’t want to accidentally poison yourself while using it. In toxicology, the median lethal dose, LD50 (abbreviation for “lethal dose, 50%”) is a measure of the lethal dose of a toxin, radiation, or pathogen. The value of LD50 for a substance is the dose required to kill half the members of a tested population after a specified test duration.

If there is a type of toxicity listed, that is the organ or organs it’s known to impact the hardest. Some chemicals, such as copper ones, will even tell you to stay away from it if you have a particular disease that is sensitive to it. Always worth knowing so you can take proper precautions.

Disposal

The SDS sheet does not have disposal details for chemicals most of the time. Instead, they have a generic message as follows:

<chemical> may need to be isolated. Contact your local Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) or your regional office of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for specific recommendations.

That’s not the sort of useful information, is it? The rule of thumb is to isolate and neutralise. Here are more details on disposal for different types:

Wash down drains with excess water

  • Concentrated and dilute acids and alkalis
  • Harmless soluble inorganic salts (including all drying agents such as CaCl2, MgSO4, Na2SO4, P2O5)
  • Alcohols containing salts (e.g. from destroying sodium)
  • Hypochlorite solutions from destroying cyanids, phosphines, etc.
  • Fine (tlc grade) silica and alumina

It should be noted in particular that no material on the “Red List” should ever be washed down a drain. This list is as follows:

  • Compounds of the following elements:- antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, lead, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, silver, tellurium, thallium, tin, titanium, uranium, vanadium and zinc.
    organohalogen, organophosphorus or organonitrogen pesticides, triazine herbicides, any other biocides.
  • Cyanides
  • Mineral oils and hydrocarbons
  • Poisonous organosilicon compounds, metal phosphides and phosphorus element
  • Fluorides and nitrites

Incineration (Solvent Waste collection)

  • All organic solvents including water miscible ones
  • Soluble organic waste including most organic solids
  • Paraffin and mineral oil (from oil baths and pumps)
  • Sharps are incinerated before they are thrown away.

Waste for special disposal

money, cash, dollarThis is a troublesome and expensive method of disposal and the quantity of special waste must be kept to an absolute minimum. Only the following items should be disposed of in this way:

  • Schedule 1 poisons (but not cyanides) and other highly toxic chemicals
  • Materials heavily contaminated with substances in (i)
  • Materials contaminated with mercury
  • Carcinogenic solids including asbestos.

Special waste must be collected in a separate labelled bottle or jar for disposal. On no account must different types of waste be mixed. Advice should be sought from the your local DEP or EPA office before beginning any work which will produce waste requiring special disposal in order to ensure that the waste in question can be disposed of and so you know you’re collecting it properly.

This is a lot to take in, but remember that you’re not running a full on corporate sized lab. It’s easy to find a place for a small container or even convert a closet into a lab. Have some confidence in yourself; you can do this.

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