Friday, April 06, 2012

Chemophobia - from a grant reviewer?

My latest SBIR grant got shot down. Fine, it happens, there will be more opportunities in the future, but I received the reviewers comments yesterday and am still pulling my hair out when I read this:
"Isocyanates are very air sensitive and very toxic. No safety precautions are mentions [sic]."
Isocyanates are air sensitive?!?!?!?!?!?!? No wait, they are very air sensitive. Where did that come from? Sure I can imagine an air sensitive isocyanate (just tack an -NCO group onto an existing air-sensitive material), but the statement is a broad generalization that is completely wrong. Worse, I can't imagine where someone got that idea from other than straight out chemophobia.

As for the second statement, toxicity cannot ever be described across a group of chemicals as broad as isocyanates, and the usual concern with them is the irritation that they cause to the eye and lungs, not their ability to kill someone (unless the irritation becomes extreme). TDI (toluene diisocyanate) has a particularly bad safety profile, but it is not the only isocyanate out there. The very existence of billions of pounds of polyurethanes in all aspects of our lives (foams, coatings, sponges, bowling balls and more) shows that these chemicals can be handled safely for the benefit of all.

As for the last sentence, ("no safety precautions are mentions [sic]"), the proposals are not requested to discuss safety. I could see doing so if we were working with unusually hazardous materials (explosives, nerve gases...) but that is not the case here unless chemophobia is kicking in and isocyanates are now considered as such. But furthermore, the reviews stated that the "PI has adequate qualifications" and that Aspen Research "has worked on worked on similar projects previously" [*] and "have sufficient expertise to conduct the research" contradicts all that.

I am aghast that someone with such ignorance and chemophobia would be reviewing chemistry proposals. Has anyone else ever seen this?

[*] We work with isocyanates several times a year manufacturing materials for outside clients on a production scale, not just a labs scale.

4 comments:

Wavefunction said...

Hmmm...I wonder if the reviewer was thinking of methyl isocyanate and Bhopal. In any case that statement is uninformed at best and possibly slightly paranoid.

DangerousBill said...

That's s a completely valid comment. I worked on SBIRs and also reviewed them from 1991 to 2002. In many proposals, the writer had no clue about the hazards involved in their research. Words like phosgene, staphylotoxins, arsine, and osmium were sometimes tossed around in ways that implied that the writer had no clue.

Indicating that you have experience with the compounds or at least are capable of educating yourself on the hazards is a sign of being prepared.

If you think isocyanates are safe in your hands, it's your duty to explain why. (BTW, polyurethanes may not be isocyanates any more, but some are still hazardous due to unreacted monomers, which is why most are made using prepolymers.)

DangerousBill said...

That's s a completely valid comment. I worked on SBIRs and also reviewed them from 1991 to 2002. In many proposals, the writer had no clue about the hazards involved in their research. Words like phosgene, staphylotoxins, arsine, and osmium were sometimes tossed around in ways that implied that the writer had no clue.

Indicating that you have experience with the compounds or at least are capable of educating yourself on the hazards is a sign of being prepared.

If you think isocyanates are safe in your hands, it's your duty to explain why. (BTW, polyurethanes may not be isocyanates any more, but some are still hazardous due to unreacted monomers, which is why most are made using prepolymers.)

John said...

DangerousBill,

Did you read the whole post here? I clearly stated that the reviews also noted that the "PI has adequate qualifications" and that Aspen Research "has worked on worked on similar projects previously" and "have sufficient expertise to conduct the research".

And no, polyurethanes are still made with isocyanates - we have them in the building all the time. Prepolymerized options exist, but are still not dominate in the market for a number of reasons.