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S : 32.065

Smells like rotten eggs, that’s how you can tell if you have it on your hands or not.  

Burnt match heads and chewed fingernails smell like sulfur too.

One of the times my family drove cross country we stopped at Yellowstone national park.  Besides the geysers I remember most vividly the sulfur pits.  The smell and heat and fumes bubbling up out of the mud.  It was like walking on a distant planet.  There were also roaming buffalo (or bison?), and like all roaming and free animals they do what they please.  One in particular followed a woman to an outhouse and just stood there.  All 900 lbs (according to Oregon Trail) just hanging out in front of the outhouse door.  She started screaming and park rangers had to rescue her from the harmless immobile buffalo by yelling at it and wishing it would move.  I didn’t really think buffalo hung around sulfur pits.  

Maybe they just did it for the laughs.  

There’s a reaction I do at work involving sulfuric acid and peroxide that used to terrify me.  It requires 3 layers of gloves, 2 lab coats (including 1 purple neoprene suit dubbed ‘Barney’), goggles and a face shield.  It can digest pretty much anything besides glass, including skin and bone and will react violently if you’re not careful.  Even containing the waste is dangerous because it will outgas for weeks afterwards.  One of the first times I was doing it on my own the reactants mixed late and I saw what an ‘overzealous’ reaction looked like.  I kept it under control but it took me months to get over the fear again.  Which really surprised me.  For a while I would physically shake at just the thought of running it.  

I’ve only hurt myself once in a lab though.  While heating mineral oil to 250 C in an overly complicated glassware apparatus I removed the bottom flask and it brushed up against my other hand.  Before I knew what happened my arm was pulling back and I was washed over in this sudden and overwhelmingly warm wave of shock.  I’ve hurt myself before, but this was different.  I felt eerily calm and focused for a short period during and after, didn’t spill, didn’t panic, didn’t scream, didn’t cry.  Just reacted.  

The glass left an absolutely perfect circle burnt into my skin for months afterwards before it eventually faded. I had a sort of fascination with it and of all the scars I have that was the only one I wish would have stayed.

But now I’ve finally conquered my fear of death.  Well, ok, my fear of death by uncontrolled chemical reaction, but I’ve developed a new fear of the cute guy who works in the polymer lab next door.  I’ve been accidentally staring at him for months.  Originally I wanted to steal the comfy looking chairs that inhabited the empty office space.  Since there’s a huge window running the length of the lab space, every time I pass by I feel the need to look in and see what’s going on.  Now it’s fully occupied by equipment, chairs, and lab techs.  And the cute guy in the lab coat and latex gloves that always catches me looking at him.  It’s gone on so long that we both do this awkward smiling at each other thing like idiots and now sometimes we even make stupid small talk in the hallway.  For all the clever and amusing thoughts in my head I say dumb things like ‘thank god’ when he says ‘it’s almost Friday’ while fumbling for his keys.  I might as well have just asked him about the weather.

Lately I’ve been thinking that people who enjoy working in labs have a slow death wish.  Sort of like smokers…..(I used to defend one with the other).  You can’t really blame them though…between the pollution in the air, the contaminants in food, lead in products, medications, george bush…..every time you turn around you’re letting something slowly kill you.  I just like to know I’m the one in control of slowly killing myself.  It makes me feel comfortable.

I ultimately quit though because of other people’s perception of me as a smoker.  It’s not socially acceptable anymore and if I want to live the life I’ve been working for I can’t be a smoker.  I just can’t.  So I spent a few months mentally preparing myself and quit over the holidays.  It’s felt like loosing the only thing I’ve every truly loved (chemically speaking).  Bummer.

So now I just breathe in burning polymer, nitric fumes and rotten eggs all day while being exposed to low grade e. coli and staph from my microbial co-worker and running life threatening chemical reactions.  

I have been eating more fresh fruit lately though and practicing stress reduction techniques.  Like not following the primaries and sleeping 8 hours a night.  So I’m hoping it will all just cancel out and that what I’m doing can constitute a healthy living in some alternate reality.  Like people who order a diet coke at mcDonald’s.  

I guess you do need to start somewhere.


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  1. and that’s what every organism ‘breathed’ in order to survive.  The switch between using oxygen or sulfur is only 1 terminal electron acceptor difference in the cellular respiration process.  Oxygen and sulfur are actually fairly similar property wise, which is why their position on the periodic table is as such.  

    It’s amazing how everything in life is essentially the result of electrons interacting with each other and causing chemical reactions.

  2. Elemental sulfur does smell like much of anything. The rotten egg smell is hydrogen sulfide, geologically produced from sulfide minerals and acids or the reduction of sulfate minerals by methane or other organic compounds; biologically by anaerobes reducing sulfates all the way to sulfide (some only go as far as sulfur)

    Piranha solution – it is nasty stuff.  I always start with the acid, drop H2O2 into it slowly until all the organics have reacted; but I’m not in a production environment.


    • RiaD on March 7, 2008 at 2:43 am

    quitting smoking…


  3. I used to be so nervous etching Si with HF – had the big runner gloves and apron, and I think a splash shield (it was almost 20 years ago!).  Once there was a power failure while I was pouring anhydrous HF and the lights went out, leaving me in inky blackness for about 15 minutes, while I stood frozen like a statue hoping I hadn’t spilled any!  

    • H2D on March 7, 2008 at 3:54 am

    We did environmental testing, analyzing soil and groundwater samples.  I spent 90% of the day on the road though, collecting said samples.  

    I absolutely loved what I did, but I’m still not sure who got the ‘worst end’ of that deal – the lab techs who had to spend 8 – 10 hours a day constantly surrounded by all of those nasty chemicals; or myself, spending 8-10 hours a day wallowing in toxic waste at Superfund sites…

    I’m now leaning towards the latter, but I loved being able to work outside all day…and wished I still could.


    The ‘big’ chemical I work with these days is MEK, for when acetone won’t do the trick!  Heh…

    Not too scary, but it can definitely get nasty at times…

    That stuff can eat through regular latex gloves in about 10 – 15 seconds, and from there work its way directly into your bloodstream…and it can even eat its way through our heavy chemical gloves in a couple of minutes or so, as well.

    But then again, there was also my ‘welcome party’ at the new job last Thursday; when some unknown idiot overflowed the waste barrel…and I subsequently spent half a day battling foaming, curdling, popping, bubbling green shit…


    Congrats on quitting smoking, definitely a great thing!

    I quit almost 8 years ago, myself…

  4. a “facility” to quit because I was evil.  I had to go someplace where nobody gave a rip what I thought.  We had these “groups” where we had to talk.  On the first day they handed out wonderful material about how healthy our lives were going to be from now on in a nice little folder and I hadn’t had a cigarette in 24 hours, I wrote on the front of it very large I HATE EVERYONE.  The guy sitting next to me looked like a little deer in a big headlight….he was terrified.  I’m sure a cigarette would have bolstered his confidence.  We had to write a goodbye letter though to smoking and we had to talk about the first day we smoked in it.  It Was PATHETIC…….every last one of them was a love letter to die for.  If only we spoke such words to our loved ones 😉

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