Campus chemistry lab security put to the test

Are campus chemicals too easy to access?

It's a Friday afternoon on the Jupiter campus of Florida Atlantic University.

5 p.m. has come and gone.

But where the Contact 5 investigators are still able to go is exactly why the federal government started requiring schools and companies that store chemicals to submit a list of anything that could pose danger.

"The main concern is terrorism.  It really doesn't take a lot, in way of chemicals to do damage," explains Dan Mcbride, a former Homeland Security Bureau Chief with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office and federal agent.  Now he works with the US State Department, training counter-terrorism tactics to law enforcement officers in third world countries.

"Since 9-11 we've seen the federal government stepping in and saying, ya know there are things occurring in these laboratories that could potentially pose a threat," said McBride.

To date, the government has identified over 300 of these chemicals as high risk.

"No one should be able to just walk into a lab, walk around and pick up whatever they want to pick up and leave.  They could represent a significant problem," said McBride.

But that's exactly what the Contact 5 Investigators could have done inside a chemistry lab on the Jupiter campus of FAU.  The Contact 5 Investigators visited the campus back in September after Analytical Chemistry Professor, Dr. Eugene Smith, raised concerns about the safety and security of labs there.

Contact 5 Investigators:  "On a scale of 1-5 how dangerous are the chemicals that are kept in the lab?"

Dr. Smith:  "I would say the vast majority are one and two, but there are chemicals that I think are classified as 5."  Dr. Smith did not identify those chemicals out of safety concerns but, he explained to Contact 5, if those chemicals were used improperly they could be deadly.

Dr. Smith says security inside the labs is lax and his complaints to the University have gone nowhere.  A few months ago, he recorded video for University leaders showcasing his primary concerns which included unlocked doors, easy access to chemicals, a lack of an on-site lab manager and his weekly routine of having to walk across the University transporting potentially dangerous chemicals, since the labs aren't all located in one building.

Security and safety inside campus laboratories is a national concern.  Following a laboratory explosion at Texas University, a 2010 a government study found when it comes to laboratory safety and security, many campuses maintain a, "lack of good practice."

Just two years earlier, emergency crews were called to Palm Beach State College when an unsupervised lab assistant accidentally spilled chemicals.

The final report from the incident revealed a number of serious flaws including a lack of security procedures for lab access and cabinet access

"In our field we call that a teachable moment and we certainly learn lessons," explained Edward Wiley, Dean of Academic Affairs at the College.

Today, the college has a full time lab specialist to oversee inventory and a number of secured chemical storage rooms.

But that's not what the Contact 5 Investigators found at FAU's Jupiter campus.  That's where our producer not only walked into a lab but was able to open up cabinets labeled "flammable."  The unlocked cabinets were full of chemicals and easily accessible to us.

We showed counter-terrorism expert Dan McBride how easy it was for us to access.

"Being able to just walk into the room without being freely challenged, that's problematic, that would be a security risk."

The Contact 5 Investigators were not able to access any labs or chemicals at Palm Beach State College or the Boca campus of Florida Atlantic University.  In response to our findings at FAU'S Jupiter campus, a spokesperson issued the following statement which reads in part:

 "Under no circumstances should these individuals, or any individuals, have had the right of entry to the laboratory."

As a result, the University has now installed a card access system as an additional security measure for its labs, employees also conducted special testing to make sure doors correctly close and lock, memos have been issued and a meeting took place between faculty and staff to reiterate proper safety and security protocols.

While the federal government oversees what chemicals are on campus, it does not regulate chemical safety and security of public government agencies in Florida, including public universities and colleges.  As a result, many Universities police themselves which has raised concerns among professors and teachers who could end up being held liable if an accident or tragedy occurs in a lab.

Statement from Florida Atlantic University below:

WPTV recently informed Florida Atlantic University that a reporter and cameraman were able to access what should have been a secure organic chemistry laboratory on the University's Jupiter campus on Sept. 13 at 4:55 p.m. This was reported to FAU on Nov. 7. Under no circumstances should these individuals, or any individuals,

have had the right of entry to the laboratory.

WPTV also indicated it attempted to access labs on FAU's Boca Raton campus, but that those labs were appropriately locked or occupied.

FAU has been proactively addressing this issue for several weeks. In late August, an FAU faculty member also raised concerns about specific labs and functionality between labs. Since that time, the following has occurred:

- Reviews by FAU's Office of Environmental Health & Safety (EH&S) did not find any safety issues related to the faculty member's particular concerns as long as standard operating procedures were followed.

-It was determined that internal doors to labs needed additional security. A card access system was ordered and installation took place in October.

- It was also determined that outside doors did not close properly due to air imbalance/air pressure. Testing and balance of the doors were immediately ordered and completed, and the doors now close correctly and lock.

-A memo was issued by Jeffrey Buller , Ph.D., dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, reminding faculty about standard operating procedures, lab safety and the importance of locking lab doors and cabinets in which chemicals are storied.

-A meeting also was held with faculty and staff to reiterate safety and safety protocols within the laboratories. Employees who violate these protocols are subject to disciplinary action.

FAU policy in regards to labs where chemicals are stored is as follows:

When authorized laboratory personnel are not present, each laboratory must be kept locked, even if it is only for a short period of time. Highly toxic chemicals that can pose immediate danger to life and health upon container opening should be stored under lock and key.

FAU adheres to all Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. Faculty and staff are regularly educated by EH&S about the need to lock all appropriate labs to ensure the safety of the University community. FAU faculty, staff and students are required to observe standard operating procedures outlined in the FAU Chemical Hygiene Plan.

The University takes this issue seriously and reminds everyone that the health, safety and welfare of FAU students, employees and visitors are everyone's responsibility.

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