University Commits To Limit Chemicals

Decision responds to resident concerns about arsine quantities at new science lab

The University pledged yesterday to limit the amount of highly lethal arsine gas it will store in a new research facility under construction just north of the Science Center, in response to resident complaints.

In a letter dated yesterday, Harvard’s Director of Environmental Health and Safety Joseph Griffin said the quantity of arsine at the Laboratory for Integrated Science and Engineering—set to be completed early next year—would not exceed two pounds.

“We do not envision having more than a cylinder or two on premise at any point in time,” Griffin wrote in the letter, addressed to Captain Gerard E. Mahoney, chair of Cambridge’s Local Emergency Planning Commission.

Residents of the Agassiz neighborhood, located just north of Harvard Yard, greeted the news with satisfaction at a monthly community meeting last night.

“This is awesome, awesome work to watch guard over our community,” resident Willie Bloomstein said last night. “I want to thank you on behalf of my family.”

Residents raised an uproar last month about the possibility that Harvard would house over 19,000 cubic feet of flammable gasses in its new research lab.

“Most of us didn’t understand what that meant and didn’t know what the chemicals were going to be,” said Sheldon Krimsky, who lives in the neighborhood and is a professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts.

Mahoney said he did not think Harvard would expose the community to danger.

“I have nothing but the utmost respect and faith in what they tell me because that’s the relationship we have,” said Mahoney, “I can assure the entire community that the building will be safe.”

Arsine gas can lead to brown urine, dizziness, headache, and delirium. Lengthy exposure may cause paralysis or permanent nerve damage.

University representatives met twice in the last month with Krimsky and Agassiz Neighborhood Council Clerk Stephen Diamond, outlining what specific chemicals would be stored in the new facility and presenting what the worst-case scenario could be.

“I felt very comfortable that even under a worst case scenario two pounds would not endanger residents,” Krimsky said.

But neighbors voiced fears that Harvard could increase the amount of chemicals at the facility without alerting the city or its residents despite its pledge.

“Consider us as a community with chemicals on our mind,” said Bloomstein.

The license the University has applied for would allow storage of almost 1,000 pounds of class three chemicals—the most dangerous category which includes arsine—in the facility.

“It could still be legal, but it may not be right,” Krimsky said.

But Mahoney said he would receive notification of any changes in Harvard’s plans. He assured the neighbors that he took their safety concerns to heart.

—Staff writer Natalie I. Sherman can be reached at nsherman@fas.harvard.edu.