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Schools told to up lab security

(Global Times)

13:31, June 19, 2013

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Chinese authorities are doubling efforts to ensure the safe handling of toxic chemicals at university science labs, after a 28-year-old Fudan University student was fatally poisoned by his roommate in April.

Huang Yang's drinking water was found poisoned with a highly toxic chemical by his roommate, who was motivated by trivial disagreements between the two. Surnamed Lin, the roommate faces the charge of murder.

Rules tabled

The tragedy has led China's Ministry of Education (MOE) to chart a new list of regulations for schools to follow regarding the management of toxic chemicals at labs last month. Schools must be accountable for the chemicals stored in their labs and responsible for their safe use, it said.

Schools will also need to inform students on how to properly store, use and dispose of such chemicals as well as keep a record of the practices.

Campuses must also adopt a "double-security system" for hazardous chemicals, meaning that at least two people will be required to handle such substances through an approval-based process. The idea is to prevent dangerous chemicals from falling into the hands of a lone individual, as was the case with Lin, the MOE said.

Lab loopholes

Strict oversight on the use of toxic chemicals at schools labs is lacking, according to Fan Shuyu, a post-graduate student at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications.

"It's easy for us to ask for five grams of arsenic, but only use three grams and report that two grams were wasted - no one is there to question anything," Fan told the Global Times.

Meanwhile, an unnamed lab monitor from Tsinghua University's chemistry department, admitted that the scenario described by Fan could easily happen at the school's labs.

"There are definitely ways of getting around the rules that we do try and enforce," he told the Global Times. "Students generally come in and out wearing backpacks and we simply do not have the time or manpower to check every single bag."

Regulatory woes

Yang Ling, a professor from Peking University's chemistry department, told China Youth Daily that enforcing the new rules will pose challenges for Chinese universities, pointing out that US schools have more staff to mind the situation.

"US universities have specific departments in charge of lab security, and some of them have more than 50 employees," said Yang.

But Liu Jianquan, a chemical engineering PhD student at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times that tougher regulations, which stifle enthusiasm for study among students, are not the answer.

"Education for students is the most important task," said Liu. "For example, students should have compulsory classes that teach them about dangerous chemicals; they should also be taught how to use such substances safely to prevent tragedies from happening."

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