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It's more hazardous than you think. 

Finding a good story to add to these pages can sometimes be a difficult task.  I have so many great ideas, but they are not always ready to be put down into words. 

I was recently hit with such a roadblock: I have over twenty stories in the various stages of development, but none are ready to go. 

But wait! 

I do have a life of my own and there must be something worth writing about.  In other words, there must be something that is really bugging me. 

Well, there is something bugging me.  It has to do with the great perils of vinegar. 

Yeah.  I know exactly what you are thinking.  What perils are there with vinegar?  Well, just leave it to the United States goverment to find some. 

As many of my readers have learned over the years, I teach science at a small school in upstate New York.  I am the district's only Physics teacher, although I do teach an occasional Earth Science class.  Except for possibly getting a rock chip in your eye (hard to do, since they should not be breaking my valuable rock specimens) or a slight paper cut, there is little danger in anything that my students do. 

Several weeks ago my lab was inspected by our local safety officer and I was cited for operating an unsafe lab.  Here's what I was cited for: 

  • Having a safety eyeglass cabinet that did not have a ground on it (I checked and it does have a ground).

  • Having two cans of paint under the sink (left behind by the previous Physics teacher many years ago and totally dried out).

  • Every year I do a demonstration where I set my tie on fire (not while I'm wearing it).  As a result, there was about one ounce of ordinary rubbing alcohol sitting on a shelf in my storeroom that needed to be stored in a flammables' cabinet (Okay, I'll give them this one, although I have to wonder if the Wal-Mart store where I bought the 19 cent bottle does the same with its inventory?).

  • I had purchased a bag of Plaster of Paris at the local hardware store for my kids to make fossils with.  Unfortunately, I did not have the material safety data sheet for this product, so I was in violation of federal law.  (I don't recall the local True Value hardware store stating that one was available.)

  • Now for the clincher:  I had one gallon of Grand Union brand vinegar sitting behind my desk.  Yes, I'm talking about the same stuff that you put on your salad.  I was told that I had to store this in a federally  approved Acids' cabinet.
Okay.  So maybe the grounded plug was just an oversight on the inspector's part.  And, quite possibly, the inspector did not realize that the paint cans were totally dried out (I never even knew they were there).  And, I certainly have no problem storing that little bit of alcohol in a flammables' cabinet.  And, I'm quite positive that they fed some poor lab rat tons of plaster of paris and found out that it is a carcinogen. 

But vinegar? 

The vinegar was the one that finally got to me.   I'm all for a safe laboratory and one would never want the vinegar sitting around in a chemistry lab.  But, there are no more toxins in my classroom than there are in the principal's office. 

So let's see if I've got this straight:  I'm supposed to place the gallon of vinegar in the acids' cabinet next to all the other dangerous acids that the chem lab may have.  The bottle then sits there until the next school year and becomes contaminated by who knows what.  I then distribute the vinegar to my class, some kid thinks that vinegar is mmm, mmm good, and...Boom!  Well, you get the idea. 

As a result of my unsafe laboratory, I was forced to sit through a one-hour seminar on lab safety.  I found out what types of gloves are best for handling formaldehyde and the like.  Vinegar, apparently the most dangerous chemical that my students use, was never mentioned.  At one time we used highly diluted hydrochloric acid to perform what is known as the "fizz test" on suspected samples of the mineral calcite.  In attempt to have a safer lab, I switched to vinegar, falling under the assumption that it was fairly harmless (typically the foods that we eat fall into this category). 

So, after sitting through this long lecture, I could not pass up the opportunity to ask about the dangers of vinegar.  My question was very simple.  I asked why it was fine for the cafeteria across the hall to hand out little paper condiment cups filled with vinegar, yet I couldn't have a sealed container of it in the corner of my classroom. 

Well, it seems that federal safety laws don't apply to the entire school.  They only apply to the laboratories (I think I'm going to change the name of my course to Home Ec. to solve the problem).  The cafeteria follows a whole different set of rules. 

And here's the best part: 

I was told that when the students handle the vinegar, they must wear proper eye protection along with chemical resistant gloves. 

I just never realized that my salad dressing was that dangerous. 

I think that we need to invest more of those tax dollars into this very pressing issue.  We should force all employees and patrons of restaurants and cafeterias to wear proper eye and skin protection while handling this dangerous product.  Just think of the hazards that all of the world's chefs are exposed to. 

It is actually quite possible that the next bottle of salad dressing that you purchase will contain the following message:  "The Surgeon General of the United States has determined that the vinegar contained in this product is hazardous to your health.  Always wear adequate eye and skin protection when consuming this product.  Store any unconsumed product in a federally approved acid storage cabinet." 

Oh, one final note to the salad dressing manufacturers:  Don't forget to attach the material safety data sheet.

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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