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Keeping Tabs on the World's Dangerous Chemicals

March 20, 2013 - 5:07pm

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Sandia chemical engineer Nancy Jackson has worked in laboratories around the world to help ensure that chemicals are used safely and kept secure. The American Association for the Advancement of Science honored her with the 2013 Science Diplomacy Award. | Photo by Randy Montoya, Sandia National Lab.

Sandia chemical engineer Nancy Jackson has worked in laboratories around the world to help ensure that chemicals are used safely and kept secure. The American Association for the Advancement of Science honored her with the 2013 Science Diplomacy Award. | Photo by Randy Montoya, Sandia National Lab.

Left alone for years, some chemicals can quietly break down into explosive elixirs, and what was once an innocent experiment by a well-meaning scientist becomes a very real, unsecured threat. Should such chemicals fall into malicious hands, the consequences could be widespread and deadly.

In 2007, Sandia chemical engineer Nancy Jackson helped the U.S. Department of State create the Chemical Security Engagement Program to help scientists around the world, particularly in developing countries, keep chemical use safe and secure. Jackson and her team develop and implement programs for laboratories worldwide to help manage their chemical inventories and devote time to training future laboratory trainers.

Jackson has traveled and worked closely with scientists in some of the world’s most volatile regions to make their laboratories more safe and secure. “Chemicals are not like nuclear or biological threat materials. They are everywhere,” said Jackson. “You can’t lock them up; you can’t put them in biosecurity level four labs. Instead of locking them up, you have to manage them.”

The program’s goal is identifying chemicals that can cause catastrophe in the wrong hands, and making sure they stay out of those hands. One challenge facing Jackson and her team is that many laboratory chemicals are dual use, with both helpful and destructive applications. Take potassium cyanide. While cyanide is used to manufacture plastics, textiles and paper, develop photographs and remove gold from its ore, when paired with an acid, cyanide can easily be turned into a deadly gas.

Jackson and her team work with universities, small businesses and research institutions to build extensive chemical inventories so organizations can know and manage what they have. With such inventories, chemicals are less likely to go missing, and sharing resources between scientists is easier, driving down costs and wait times associated with ordering new products.

The program regularly engages scientists in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where Jackson says chemists and chemical engineers understand the importance of keeping chemicals guarded, but often don’t have the resources or training to implement security systems.  

Jackson and her team have developed five-day, train-the-trainer programs for chemists and chemical engineers that teach the importance of personal protective equipment, maintaining working chemical hoods, chemical management and physical security. The goal is to educate professors and researchers so that program graduates will be aware of safety and security measures, thus sustaining the program for future graduates.

Despite the important national security mission of Jackson’s work, she said one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is building relationships, particularly with the growing population of female chemists and chemical engineers in the developing world.

For her extensive work engaging scientists around the world, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has honored Jackson with the 2013 Science Diplomacy Award, which was presented in February at the AAAS annual meeting in Boston. She serves as the manager of Sandia’s International Chemical Threat Reduction program, and was the 2011 president of the American Chemical Society.

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