Shelf collapse prompts hazmat call at Institute for Genomic Biology

Shelf collapse prompts hazmat call at Institute for Genomic Biology

UPDATED 7:30 a.m. Tuesday

URBANA -- One person received minor injuries on Monday night after being splashed with chemicals that were sent falling after a shelf collapsed in a third-floor laboratory storage area inside the Institute for Genomic Biology.

That man rinsed off in a safety shower, was checked out in a decontamination area, and refused medical treatment, said UI police Lt. Todd Short. The mixing of chemicals that resulted from the collapse prompted a hazardous-materials warning from the University of Illinois.

The materials release, which happened just before 10 p.m., was confined to the one lab. The Urbana Fire Department was on the scene until about 2:20 a.m. Tuesday working with the UI Division of Research Safety to clean the affected area, Short said.

The building was declared safe enough to open for business Tuesday and a private contractor, hired by the UI, was expected to remove the remains of the cleanup. 

Urbana Division Chief Brian Nightlinger said fire officials were quickly able to identify five of the chemicals "but after they broke, we weren't sure of what all they were."

"All were solvent-based," he said, meaning flammable. They were in four-liter bottles in a storage closet. Nightlinger said people working in the lab immediately knew of the spill. He was not certain how many people were in the building but said firefighters sounded alarms in the building twice to make sure everyone was out. There are people working there around the clock, he said.

Given the chemical cocktail the firefighters were facing, Nightlinger said they chose the most cautious response.

"We used the fully encapsulated suits with air. The guys look like they were walking on the moon," he said. 

Two suited firefighters go in at a time and work for up to an hour - the amount of oxygen they have - while two suited wait on the outside to relieve them or rescue them if something should go wrong, Nightlinger explained.

Nightlinger said fire officials set up a decontamination area outside the building, standard protocol in a hazardous materials spill. The area's hazardous material decontamination truck, stored at Champaign's Windsor Road fire station, was there as was a hazardous materials trailer.

Firefighters routinely train on campus to handle just the kind of situation they faced Monday night. Nightlinger said lab personnel, the building manager, the department head and the chemical safety people from the UI all huddled with firefighters to decide the best way to handle the situation. UI police cordoned off the area.

According to the institute's website, researchers there study areas including bioenergy, climate change, regenerative medicine, drug development, and understanding cancer at the cellular level.

Officials sent out an Illini-Alert warning people to escape the area of the institute, which is at 1206 W. Gregory Dr. in Urbana. The UI sent an alert at 11:10 p.m. saying that spill had been contained inside the building and the area outside the building was safe. The UI sent another alert at 11:28 p.m. to say the building had been safely evacuated and that firefighters were "mitigating the hazard," emphasizing the area around the building was still safe. 

"If we think there's an imminent threat to health, life or safety, we're going to push out an Illini-Alert immediately," Short said.

He said UI police did not know the extent of the chemical release when they first heard of the spill and would rather take the more cautious approach. The first alert urged people to "escape" the area.

"Without knowing the circumference of this hazmat release, we sent the whole kit and caboodle," Short said.

It was the second Illini-Alert officials sent out within 24 hours after a reported shooting prompted an alert early Monday morning. It turned out that the shooter had inflicted a gunshot wound on himself.

"I'm not taking a chance," Short said. "If there's someone who's hit, I'm not taking the chance."

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Bulldogmojo wrote on May 28, 2012 at 11:05 pm

This is how the Zombie apocalypse starts, which is OK because Zombies would do a better job of running this University

Mr Mister wrote on May 29, 2012 at 1:05 am


rudycapparos wrote on December 21, 2012 at 2:12 pm


HazMat Experts and Firefighters petition Dow Chemical and Union Pacific for safe rail tank cars transporting gas chlorine. Secondary containment is a necessary improvement that must be implemented. See--PETITION C KIT for First Responders Comments.

rachamim wrote on May 29, 2012 at 7:05 am

This article makes it seem like people were more concerned about the fact that they had to escape, but I think most people who were upset about this were upset because the 'area' had not been defined. And, um, your alert system has not proven to be stellar so far.

Reykjavik wrote on May 29, 2012 at 8:05 am

A case where bureaucrats in uniforms strut and send blustery emails.  Such accidents are best addressed by the quiet competence of someone technically knowledgeable.  

Sid Saltfork wrote on May 29, 2012 at 1:05 pm

"The quiet competence of someone technically knowledgeable" may not have been possible on Memorial Day.   It might not be possible this week, or month depending on who is around to do it.  The protocol was followed as it should be. 

Speakerman11 wrote on May 29, 2012 at 8:05 am

Can somebody please explain to me exactly WHY people are in a chem lab at 10pm on a Monday night, let alone Memorial Day?  GO HOME!  Have a beer! Spend time with your friends and family!  Judist Priest people! 

Reykjavik wrote on May 29, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Because strong students and strong faculty work many weekends, evenings, holidays, etc.  Thank your university and your state that UIUC attracts students and faculty with this work-ethic.  What do you think is happening at CalTech, MIT, Harvard etc?  That their students and faculty are spending holiday evenings with family and drinking beer?  

Sid Saltfork wrote on May 29, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Well, some department heads take their grad students out west to celebrate the department head's birthday.   They even get reimbursed for travel, lodging, and meals for the "seminar".  Students, and faculty are just people like everyone else.  The "work ethic" claim does not hold water to the public who know them.

coffeenomnom wrote on May 29, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Sid! I've missed your bitter trolling! The NG hasn't provided enough places lately for you to spew bile against those awful U of I faculty and grad students that offend you so much.

Sid Saltfork wrote on May 29, 2012 at 5:05 pm

I had years of experience with the U. of I. faculty, and grad students.  Most are hard working.  Some are elitist, pompous fools.  Goodness forbid; that anyone is critical, or questions the U. of I.  By the way; what ever happened to the faculty's decision on Dr. Troyer's fate?  Nothing but coverups, and questionable spending has been the "flagship's" reputation for years.  How about cleaning it up?   

Nice Davis wrote on May 30, 2012 at 6:05 pm

You can find "elitist, pompous fools" in just about any organization. Do you think the U of I is more prone to this problem, less, or about the same?

Sid Saltfork wrote on May 30, 2012 at 6:05 pm

Your right.  They exist in all organizations.  Perhaps, they just stand out more in Champaign County due to the university being the biggest organization here.  I would say that it is identifiable to the staff, and local residents.  Any criticism of the university usually brings out the comments of those in that catergory whether the criticism is regarding ethics, finances, pay raises, covered up scandals, or accidents that may affect others.  The current pension reform bill is a good example.  All of the other labor groups united some time ago in opposing the legislation.  Just recently, the university faculty wrote a letter to the legislators.  On the surface, it appeared that they were solely concerned for themselves.  However, when Professor Cary Nelson was interviewed by WCIA for the 6:00 p.m. news tonight ; he did use the term "public employees".  Even though the effort is late in the game, I respect him for including the majority of the lesser paid public employees in his interview.   Have you seen the "elitist, pompous" behavior among some of your colleagues?  Have you seen them expect privileges beyond their paid work benefits?  Little things like making a mess eating in a conference room; and expecting others to clean it up.  Perhaps "working from home", and requiring others to forward their phone calls without divulging that they are "working from home"?  Maybe, I am "old school"; but I never saw Asst. Dean Gaylord Hatch, or Vice Chancellor, Roger Martin, or Asst. Dean, Brian Rainer, or many others that I came in contact with over the years ever pull such antics.  I did see it among many that I will not name.  Your right.  They exist in every organization; but they stand out at the U. of I.

beebeebee wrote on May 29, 2012 at 2:05 pm

Because some of us have to get our work done, and things can take a long time to do. 


A lot of professors don't care that it's a holiday  and expect us to work anyway. (Unless it's Christmas or Thanksgiving, etc.) Sucks, but that's just how it is. If we worked 8-5 everyday, we'd never get through school in a timely manner.

Sid Saltfork wrote on May 29, 2012 at 5:05 pm

I understand what grad students go thru.  Hopefully, you will not turn into one of them when you teach.  Where are they when your working?

beebeebee wrote on May 31, 2012 at 2:05 am

Hopefully by that point I'll remember how hard it was for me, appreciate how hard my grad students work, and will be okay with them taking a holiday off. 

Where are they? Monday, my advisor was on a fishing trip with his family, and my husband's was in his office working on a grant proposal. It depends on the person, I guess.

Priorities wrote on May 29, 2012 at 8:05 am

Illini Alerts: killing exactly as many people through unnecessary heart attacks as it saves through early warnings since 2011.

The Real Luke wrote on May 29, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Yeah, "the area" could have been a particular corner of the lab, or all of C-U.

I live in Urbana, and my commute goes by IGB on many days.  My wife and I both work in the science business, and we were able to correctly GUESS the magnitude of "the area" -- but that's not really the point.   Emergency-related information needs to be specific and useful, but this one was vague, threatening, and kept us guessing.

In retrospect, though, the real leasson is that C-U just isn't as cool as Eureka.

P.S. Bummer about the fellow who got covered that coctail of solvents, especially if ethidium bromide was involved.  That's a rough way to end what was likely intended to be a day of hard work.  A friend of mine had a similar accident with tritium-laced termite food once, and we never let her hear the end of it -- so he has my sympathies!  Spend enough time in the lab, and it becomes more comfortable than your living room -- but lab safety is a serious business, especially when the people most likely to be injured by a lab accident are young, smart, hard-working people who we hope are at the beginning of long and productive research careers.

Mark Taylor wrote on May 29, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Also, too, the choice of fonts for the alerts as well as the formatting is just atrocious. And I sure hope whoever chose the text size gets fired.