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Science & Technology

November 10, 2008
Volume 86, Number 45
pp. 38-40

Underground Science

Chemistry hobbyists face a labyrinth of local and state regulations

Bethany Halford

VICTOR DEEB'S HOUSE sits on a quiet street a few blocks off the main drag in Marlborough, Mass., about an hour's drive from Boston. A lush garden of flowers meticulously maintained by Deeb's wife, Ghada, fills the front lawn. From the outside, the only thing that suggests something unusual took place in this peaceful suburban home is a second-story window covered in plywood.

On Aug. 5, a police officer passing Deeb's home noticed smoke coming out of an air conditioner in the window and called the fire department. After putting out the flames, a fire fighter went to turn off the power in the basement. He didn't find the electrical circuit box there—it's in the garage. Instead, he found Deeb's basement laboratory.

Shut Down Deeb in what remains of his basement lab. Bethany Halford/C&EN
Shut Down Deeb in what remains of his basement lab.

By the end of the day, the home would become the site of a Tier 3 hazardous materials cleanup, visited by city code inspectors, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the local board of health, the state bomb squad, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Stories like Deeb's worry the small community of hobby chemists who operate small laboratories in their homes. Having a lab in the basement, garage, or backyard shed was once a rite of passage for scientifically minded kids and a common hobby for science-curious adults. Now, between the war on terror, the war on drugs, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission's (CPSC's) crackdown on homemade fireworks (C&EN, July 9, 2007, page 31), home science is increasingly coming under attack. Anyone who wants to pursue chemistry as a hobby these days has to navigate a maze of federal, state, and local laws or run the risk of having a hazmat team show up at their door.

According to reports in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, authorities found more than 1,500 vials, jars, and bottles of chemicals in Deeb's basement and garage. A hazmat crew spent three days clearing out the materials they determined to be potentially hazardous, ultimately collecting and removing the various chemicals in 35 drums. Deeb has not been fined or cited for the lab, but he has received a $17,000 bill for the cost of the cleanup.

The City of Marlborough has said that the chemicals in his home laboratory constituted a violation of the city's sanitary code. Specifically, says Cynthia Panagore Griffin, Marlborough's assistant solicitor, the chemicals in Deeb's basement "were deemed by the board of health to pose a health risk to the occupants of the home."

The incident report from the Massachusetts DEP notes "a significant amount of mixed chemicals with very poor housekeeping and no apparent segregation or order" in Deeb's basement. The agency says the chemicals posed neither a radiological nor a biological hazard, and although some were flammable or explosive, none were more dangerous than many common household products.

Deeb says the most dangerous chemicals in his collection were boron trifluoride etherate, dicyclopentadiene, and some organic peroxides. "Who is more qualified to determine what is a public safety threat? The city or me, with 50 years of experience in the chemical industry?" he asks. "And would I have hazardous material where I, my wife, and my child live? Where my grandchildren visit?"

Deeb, 71, spent decades working in the field of polymer chemistry. After 20 years as a chemist with W.R. Grace, Deeb retired in 1995 and devoted himself full-time to his basement lab. "My desire to create and innovate is still very active," he says. "I find it demoralizing to sit in front of the television all day."

He formed a company, R&D Technology International, and received patents for his work, which has been focused on reclaiming rubber from tires for a second life as paving and roofing materials. Deeb is also working on developing bisphenol A-free coatings and sealants based on modified vegetable oil for food jar lids.

The City of Marlborough views such activity as a violation of its zoning laws, which prohibit people from running a business in an area that's only zoned for residences. Deeb's case is currently making its way through the legal system. A temporary restraining order has been issued to keep Deeb from restarting the lab. He is suing the City of Marlborough for $10 million, claiming that along with the chemicals, authorities also removed his research notes, making it impossible for him to protect the intellectual property they contained. The notes held the formulas for two sealants that he was in contract negotiations to sell to a German corporation. Without the notes, he says, the deal soured.

HOBBY CHEMISTS will tell you that home labs have been the source of some of chemistry's greatest contributions. Charles Goodyear figured out how to vulcanize rubber with the same stove that his wife used to bake the family's bread. Charles Martin Hall discovered the economical electrochemical process for refining aluminum from its ore in a woodshed laboratory near his family home. A plaque outside Sir William Henry Perkin's Cable Street residence in London notes that the chemist "discovered the first aniline dyestuff, March 1856, while working in his home laboratory on this site and went on to found science-based industry."

Try This At Home Thompson works in his home chemistry lab. Barbara Fritchman Thompson
Try This At Home Thompson works in his home chemistry lab.

Even in the 21st century, when home labs tend to be more synonymous with methamphetamine than major discoveries, there are some professional chemists who pursue their science at home. Just 90 miles southeast of Deeb's house, Osamu Shimomura, one of the scientists who shared this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry, runs a small lab in the basement of his Falmouth, Mass., residence, where he studies bioluminescent materials from animal tissues.

"I don't have anything that is dangerous in my lab. I have many chemicals in small amounts—salts and buffers" as well as some organic solvents, such as methanol, Shimomura says. He tells C&EN that he has a business license for scientific research, for which he simply had to go to the town hall, fill out an application, and pay a fee.

For chemists who just want to run a lab as a hobby, figuring out which laws and regulations apply to them can be a daunting task. "It's pretty easy to find federal-level regulations regarding storage, transport, and handling of hazardous materials," says Matthew Ernst, founder of the chemistry hobbyists' forum sciencemadness.org. "Most of those regulations wouldn't apply to hobbyists or even small businesses because they have threshold quantity exemptions."

The Department of Homeland Security, for example, maintains a list of hundreds of "chemicals of interest" known as Appendix A. The minimum threshold levels required for notifying DHS are so massive that it's hard to imagine a chemistry hobbyist would ever reach them. Deeb would have needed at least 5,000 lb of BF3 to reach DHS's threshold.

The Environmental Protection Agency, the main watchdog for hazardous waste, defers to state and local agencies in most cases for home labs. An EPA spokesperson tells C&EN, "In a situation where a home laboratory does exist and the operation of a home laboratory poses an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment, EPA has the authority to order the laboratory operator to clean it up and the authority to bring suit against the operator of the laboratory."

For example, this summer, police following up on a missing person's report in central New Jersey stumbled upon hundreds of chemicals, including radiological agents and several pounds of potentially explosive picric acid, in one retired chemist's basement. The basement was declared a Superfund site, and EPA spent several weeks cleaning up the home. Agency officials weren't certain of the cleanup's total cost but said the job had a $475,000 budget.

SOME STATES have regulations that address home-based chemistry, but these are largely focused on hazardous waste disposal or preventing illegal drug manufacturing. Californians face a $25,000 fine if they don't properly dispose of hazardous chemicals, whether they're running a home lab or just using common household items. Such items include anything that's flammable or has an extreme pH.

The Texas Department of Public Safety requires anyone wanting to buy, sell, or trade certain chemicals or laboratory equipment to get a permit. Most of the chemicals are drug precursors, but the equipment includes common glassware, such as Erlenmeyer flasks and condensers. Before anyone can get a permit to purchase such chemistry mainstays for a home in Texas, both a background check and a home inspection are required.

"Local regulations are hardest of all," Ernst says. There is any number of local officials who could take issue with a home laboratory—the local fire marshal, board of health, or zoning commissioner. "Any well-equipped home lab looks an awful lot like a meth lab to the untrained eye," he points out. "There's definitely leeway for any official who comes across a lab to exercise their judgment to shut you down, and then you're stuck with a very expensive legal fight or you can just cave in."

"Why should anyone need permission to pursue a hobby?" asks Robert Bruce Thompson, author of the "Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments," a comprehensive how-to book for setting up a home laboratory that comes complete with a broad range of experiments. "If you have a hobby lab, you're in good company. Between hobbyists and homeschoolers, there are literally hundreds of thousands of households that have lab equipment and chemicals."

Even so, Thompson confesses that he considered authoring his book anonymously, letting a lawyer in Switzerland handle the details. He notes that he did take a few precautions when setting up a laboratory in his house, which he is currently using to test experiments for his next book on home forensics experiments. He called his local department of environmental protection to find out if there were any guidelines—there weren't; he asked two friends who are Ph.D. chemists to inspect the lab; and he let his neighbors know what he was up to.

Thompson suggests that would-be home chemists avoid the Drug Enforcement Administration's List I chemicals, which the agency tracks closely. "There's also a DEA List II, but most of the chemicals on it are so common that there's no hope of tracking them," he says. "These are chemicals that you can buy literally by the gallon at hardware stores."

Large amounts of oxidizers and fuels tend to attract the attention of DHS and CPSC, so he also suggests only purchasing small amounts of those materials. "On general principles, and to avoid the possible wrath of EPA and similar agencies, I'd avoid buying arsenic, mercury, or cadmium compounds. Also, if you use compounds of lead, barium, or other heavy metals, it's a good idea to have and use a labeled hazardous waste container," Thompson adds.

"Not all of us are mad bombers or drugmakers," Ernst says. "We would like to be able to practice our hobby in peace if there's a reasonable way for us to figure out the guidelines."

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