Storing Hazardous Chemicals in a University Lab the Right Way

It sounds like a no brainer, especially in a place of higher education. After all, aren’t they teaching our kids the right way to do things?

It may be surprising to find out that many institutions of higher learning do not do an adequate job of storing hazardous chemicals in their labs or with medical waste disposal. This lack of oversight or specialized knowledge when dealing with hazardous substances can lead to fines, health risks or even explosive consequences.storing hazardous chemicals

Just recently South Carolina State University was fined $51,500. It was required to pay $5,150 within 30 days. The remaining $46,390 will be suspended when the university successfully carries out all the requirements of the Consent order. Source – (

The university was found to have inappropriately stored hazardous chemicals that were incompatible with each other. The chemicals were stored near each other with no definitive dividing wall, cabinet or other device to separate them and stop them from potentially igniting. The university was also found not to be completing the proper reports concerning the hazardous chemicals and had failed to maintain the facility in a manner that would prevent harm to human life.

Apparently the practice of storing hazardous chemicals, which were coming from the various science departments around the university, had been going on for several years. Once the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) got involved the cleanup began. A spokesperson for the university indicated they are cooperating fully with the DHEC and that the problem was one that was created some time ago and not one that was created recently.

A hazardous waste disposal company had to be called in to dispose of the waste for a cost somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000.

As part of the agreement between the DHEC and South Carolina State, the university will hire a hazardous waste transportation company to handle the waste disposal on a quarterly basis.

How Can This Happen

In a higher education university where you may have 4 – 5 people who have the direct responsibility of overseeing their respective programs, it’s hard to believe that this could happen. Factor in the amount of money these positions make:storing hazardous chemicals

  • VP Operations - $151,200

  • Provost - $146,880

  • Dean - $135,640

  • Chair - $102,347

  • ExDir Effectiveness - $135,640.

          Source: BCB

not counting the professors, these 5 positions total $569,360. So why would these types of situations exist?

There are many possible factors that probably contributed to the oversight. People leaving jobs for other ones, an outdated tracking and storage system that was just passed on from one person to the next, lack of current knowledge relating to the proper hazardous waste disposal procedures or even just plain laziness. In any event, it is quite clear that even though a higher education institution should know better, it’s easy to let things slip.

How to Store Hazardous Waste Chemicals Correctly

The proper storage of hazardous waste chemicals is critical in avoiding a potential disaster. Explosions, toxic gases, fumes or mists that can cause significant human health risks can be avoided with some due diligence and working with a local hazardous waste disposal company.

The following steps will help identify where your system may be failing:

  • Separate Incompatible chemicals
    • Prominently post a chemical abbreviation sheet in the lab when abbreviations are used on labels.

      • Label refrigerators used for chemical storage with a "No Food Storage" sticker.

      • Label refrigerators that are not approved for flammable storage units with a "No Flammable Storage" sticker.

    • Include the following additional information required for chemicals that degrade over time:

      • Date received
      • Date opened
      • Date tested
    • Label each chemical transferred from their original containers with the appropriate label and description.

      • Chemical name or abbreviation
      • Concentration
      • Hazard warning
  • Select Appropriate Containers

    • Choose sturdy, sealable storage containers made of material compatible with the chemical they'll hold.

  • Store like chemicals together. Don’t mix chemicals in the same storage unit that could create a hazardous situation if mixed.

  • Review MSDS for chemical compatibility
  • Storage units should be separated from each other in the lab. 

    • This does not mean side by side. Hazardous chemicals, that if combined could create an explosion or fire, should be stored in different areas of the lab.
  • Each lab should have adequate ventilation.

  • Make an accurate inventory list and keep it maintained
  • Spill kits should be readily available in case of an accidental spill.

  • Emergency procedures should be in place and posted.

  • Use a hazardous waste storage weekly checklist


Don’t be afraid to reach out to the experts if you feel your procedures may need updating. Lack of knowledge or ignorance of what is legally required of you and your lab for the safety of everyone can no longer be a valid excuse. You will get fined and worst of all, someone could get someone seriously hurt!