Minor injuries reported after chemical explosion at UC Merced

Merced County firefighters and emergency personnel responded to a minor chemical accident in one of the lab rooms at UC Merced on Saturday afternoon.
Merced County firefighters and emergency personnel responded to a minor chemical accident in one of the lab rooms at UC Merced on Saturday afternoon. SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG

A small chemical explosion at UC Merced's Science and Engineering Building left graduate researcher Eric Joseph with minor cuts and burns.

Josephs, a UC Merced graduate researcher, was taken to a hospital Saturday after a small chemical explosion in a lab at the school's Science and Engineering Building.

Although the explosion was serious enough to prompt a multi-agency response, Josephs is recuperating with his family in Southern California and expected to return to school this week, said UC Merced spokeswoman Tonya Luiz. "We are really pleased that he is doing so well."

Josephs, a 2007 Duke University graduate who studies under the school's quantitative systems biology program, was injured after a beaker he was holding, which contained nitric acid and butanol, exploded. Luiz said two UC Merced police officers responded to the scene at 2:48 p.m.

More than a dozen firefighters from Merced County Fire Department and Merced Fire Department also arrived, in addition to a county hazardous materials team. Josephs was transported by ambulance to Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, Luiz said.

Josephs' injuries consisted of minor first degree burns to his arms. The shattered glass from the beaker resulted in the cuts to his arms and face, Luiz said.

Luiz said the building has been rendered safe and classes are scheduled to be held today.

UC Merced senior Rob Backman, 27, said he entered the building on Saturday and heard a blast. "It wasn't loud. It was a little deadened like it was behind a closed door," he said.

Backman heard someone yell for help. He ran upstairs and saw Josephs, who was soaked in water and bleeding. Backman called 911.

Luiz said the accident happened during a project Josephs was conducting as part of his research.

There was no structural damage from the accident, but water from an emergency shower had flooded the second floor lab. Water was flowing from a interior balcony, like a waterfall, into the lobby of the building.

To keep hazardous materials from entering the sewer system, Luiz said there is no drain in the emergency shower. Some office space was affected by the water, although the building's classrooms were not affected, Luiz said.

Though most of the services weren't needed, UC Merced Police Chief Rita Spaur said she was pleased with the "quick, smooth and coordinated response" of all agencies involved.

The incident was the first of its kind the university's history, Spaur said, adding that her department completed training exercises for similar situations last summer.

Still, Luiz said the university will probably review security protocols as a result of the incident. "Any time we have something like this, it's just normal to review what worked and what didn't work, so I would imagine that will happen this week," Luiz said.

Butanol is an alcohol with low toxicity in single-dose experiments and is considered safe enough for use in cosmetics. Nitric acid is a strong acid that is highly corrosive and toxic. It can cause severe burns.

Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com. Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.