[Histonet] picric acid

Eric Hoy Eric.Hoy <@t> UTSouthwestern.edu
Fri Feb 3 19:25:59 CST 2012

Way back in 1976, I had just been disgorged from graduate school with a MS
degree in microbiology, and I landed a job in a hospital lab in a Chicago
suburb as the micro supervisor.  Since I was the new guy, and no one else
wanted the (unpaid) job, I was also appointed as Laboratory Safety Officer.
One morning I sallied forth into the histology lab with my clipboard and
flashlight to look for safety hazards.  Everything was in good shape until I
looked under a sink.  There was a brown glass gallon bottle at the back of
the cabinet, which I dragged out and plunked down on the bench.  The label
was yellow with age (and the pigment of picric acid which had leaked from a
small crack in the bottle.)  The label identified the contents as liquid
picric acid, which was now a single solid crystal, since all of the liquid
had evaporated.  It would have been about a half gallon if it had still been
liquid. I recalled my clinical chemistry class, in which we learned that the
picric acid we used for serum creatinine was explosive in the crystalline
state.  I called the local fire department, and they were first concerned
that we had suffered an acid spill, but I explained that this acid was a
solid, but potentially explosive.  Since there was no chemical spill, they
were not too concerned, and said they would get back to me.

About an hour later, the bomb squad showed up in full regalia.  The fire
department had looked up picric acid and found it was 2,4,6 trinitrophenol,
a close relative of 2,4,6 trinitrotoluene (TNT).  They evacuated that wing
of the hospital (the entire lab and about 50 patients on the two floors
above the lab), and carried the bottle of picric acid out in their bomb
disposal device.

They detonated it in a field far away from the hospital by firing a rifle
shot into it.  It left a crater about 20 feet in diameter and ten feet deep.
It was featured on the evening news by at least two of the Chicago TV
stations.  They had nice video of patients on gurneys being rolled down the
halls, and a great view of the exploding bottle.  Mythbusters could have
learned from that video.  Unfortunately, the hospital administration was not
amused by the publicity, and we had to explain to multiple committees why we
had such a hazardous substance in the lab.

The final comment on this incident is that the bottle had been under the
sink for years.  No one working in the lab at that time could remember when
it was last used.  This cabinet was where the histotechs stored their purses
(back in the days when nearly all histotechs were female).  They would come
in at the beginning of their shift and toss (literally) their purses into
the cabinet.  Virchow be praised, they had never hit the bottle with enough
force to detonate it.

If any of the histotechs who worked at HPH back in those days are on this
list, I'd love to hear from you.

Best regards,
Eric Hoy

Eric S. Hoy, Ph.D., SI(ASCP)
Clinical Associate Professor
Department of Medical Laboratory Sciences
The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
Dallas, Texas
Email: Eric.Hoy <@t> UTSouthwestern.edu

On 2/3/12 12:50 PM, "Perry, Margaret" <Margaret.Perry <@t> sdstate.edu> wrote:

> I am curious how big an explosion there would be from 1% picric acid in
> acetone if a little dried around the cap.

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