Nobel Prize Laureate on The Loss of Sight In One Eye Due To A Cryogen Accident

Key Instruction Points

  • Consider shielding for operations involving vacuum or pressurization.

  • Be aware of the potential for pressurization when working with cryogenic liquids.

  • Use appropriate personal protective equipment.

A University of X investigator was blinded in one eye when a cryotube exploded while being thawed.  The probable cause was the rapid expansion of liquid nitrogen that had entered the tube through a small crack during storage.   Suitable personal protective equipment for thawing cryotubes and handling cryogenic liquids consists of a face shield, heavy gloves, a buttoned lab coat and pants or a long skirt.  Cryotubes should be kept in a heavy, walled container or behind a safety shield while warming.

Dear Colleagues,

Many of you know that I was blinded in one eye during a lab accident in the year X, shortly after I arrived at the University of Y as an assistant professor.  I always wore safety glasses whenever I was at my bench and, while I felt that I was conscientious about observing safety measures, my experience proves that you can’t be too cautious about wearing glasses.

As I prepared to go home from the lab during the early hours of the morning of the accident, I checked in to see what my co-workers were doing and then returned to my bench, removed my safety glasses, and put on my parka.  As I was walking to the door, I passed the bay where a first-year graduate student was flame-sealing an NMR tube.  I asked how it was going and he replied, “Good.  I’ve got it sealed.”

He was sealing off the tube at atmospheric pressure in a big nitrogen bath, a procedure the two of us had discussed though neither had ever performed it.  I stopped by his bench, picked up the tube from the bath and held it to the light.  The tube immediately frosted over and, as I wiped it to better see the contents, I noticed that the solvent level was exceedingly high.  Suddenly the solvent dropped to a normal level and, though I instantly realized condensed oxygen had been sealed in the NMR tube, I was quite literally unable to move a muscle before it exploded.  Glass fragments shredded the cornea, penetrated the iris, and caused the partial collapse of one eye.  My only other injuries were superficial facial cuts. 

My first ten days at the hospital were spent totally immobilized and with both eyes bandaged.  The pain was terrific, but my fear was even greater:  I had been warned that when my eyes were uncovered there was a small chance I might be blind in both eyes due to “sympathetic ophthalmia”.  Because eyes are walled off from the rest of the body in utero, eye protein driven into the blood stream can raise an immune response that leads to the “killing” of an uninjured eye.  My disappointment at having no functional vision in my injured eye was, needless to say, surpassed by my joy at retaining full vision in my good eye. 

The lesson to be learned from my experience is straightforward: there’s simply never an adequate excuse for not wearing safety glasses in the laboratory at all times.                             

From Professor X