The Dirty Business of Hard Science


Science can be a really dirty business. By dirty, I do not mean corrupt (although it can be). I mean filthy. Hard science is disgustingly filthy in ways that make me a little queasy just thinking about. Science is also far from green. It takes a lot of energy to run something like the Large Hadron Collider. You want to talk about gas-guzzlers? Check out any of the rockets we’ve launched into space. Green is never the first priority of science, neither is clean. Science is a dirty job.

Here is a quick look at some of what it takes to clean up science’s dirty act.

hard-scienceLab Work

When you think about a science lab, you probably envision nice, neat, highly organized, pristine spaces. Every surface is always so meticulously sanitized, you could probably eat off of them. Indeed, you could. But in most labs, you would die horribly soon thereafter. That is because researchers and experimenters are dealing with the most dangerous chemical agents and combinations in the known universe.

There are the researchers who work with animals. To get a sense of the filth such a lab must generate, just think about your own pets. Labs deal with all kinds of animals. Some would say that there is no ethical way of experimenting on an animal. Whether or not that is true, there is certainly no clean way to do it.

Medical Research

Animals are not all you will find in a lab. You will also find ebola, swine flu, and various flavors of the plague. There is nothing in a medical research lab that you should feel comfortable touching, or ever being around.

Now, just think about the challenge of safely storing all those samples. The very thought boggles the mind. Just look up the top 12 killer household chemicals–people die from these all the time. Now, just imagine what it takes to store ebola.

The facilities that specialize in biological storage require advanced equipment for dealing with all kinds of samples with special temperature requirements. They also have to have power backups and stringent security.

Science on the Move

If you think that storing lab samples is risky business, you should consider the perils of moving a lab. It happens all the time. Labs are generally a part of corporations like pharmaceutical companies. They relocate as a matter of course. Scientists who want to do research in a remote location have to find ways to pack up their labs and get them mobile.

As you might imagine, this requires people with specialized skills and equipment. Many things have to be considered. What happens if a truck moving extremely volatile chemicals has an accident? What happens if that accident is in the middle of a city? There are many ways professional movers diminish the risks associated with moving dangerous materials. If you happen to have a lab or hospital you need to move, read this first. Naturally, the government has a few things to say on the subject. It is a highly regulated activity.

Taking out the Trash

How do you dispose of nuclear waste? You don’t just toss it in a garbage can and leave it out by the curb. It is apparently buried deep inside the earth. While the average lab’s garbage may not be quite that deadly, it’s still pretty bad.

A Canadian company called Closed Loop Environmental Alliance Network Inc. (C.L.E.A.N.) provides us with some insight on the matter by listing the types of waste it claims to be capable of handling:

  • Radioactive, mixed and universal wastes
  • Toxic, flammable, oxidizer, organic peroxide, and corrosive materials
  • Pyrophoric, gases, aerosol, unknown, reactive, explosive, and shock sensitive materials
  • Biological
  • Compressed gas and cylinders
  • Ethers, THF, dioxane, and sodium azide

There is no doubt about it. Science is dirty, but necessary. You don’t want to touch anything in a research lab. You don’t want to help them move. And you don’t want to be around on trash day. Cleaning up after science is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Thankfully, we seem to have no shortage of professionals willing and able to do it.


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