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Chemistry and Biochemistry


Aftershocks of the recent earthquake


Central Science--At 3:40 pm on Sunday, April 4, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck in the area of Baja California, Mexico. The epicenter was located about 30 miles south of Mexicali and 100 miles southeast of Tijuana.

Generally, little earthquake-related damage was reported in the U.S. I was still curious to know how chemistry labs fared, however, so I made a few calls this week to San Diego-area institutions.

Jim Fisher, a chemistry professor at Imperial Valley College, notes that his school was a mere 35 miles north of the earthquake epicenter and some estimates say that the effects in Imperial were equivalent to a local 6.8 magnitude quake. It was an experience he won’t forget soon. “Every single person you talk to was pretty horrified because of the uncertainty as to when the earthquake would stop in intensity. It kept building and finally subsided,” he says. The aftershocks–some as high as magnitude 5.1–have continued to be nerve-wracking, he says.

IVC just finished building a $30 million dollar science building and this is their first full semester using it, Fisher says. The building incorporates typical earthquake-country recommendations: Cabinets are bolted to the walls, shelving that holds glassware has a 2-inch lip to prevent items from sliding off, shelving in classrooms has glass-windowed doors with a latch that must be tripped by your thumb, and lab stools do not have wheels.

In the chemistry labs, earthquake losses amounted to two 250-mL and one 100-mL volumetric flasks, “because they were at a dish washing station and not on the shelf,” Fisher says.

Other schools, further away from the earthquake epicenter, fared equally well. When Carolyn Keierleber, environmental health & safety director for The Scripps Research Institute, was called back to campus that Sunday, she and other campus officials found nothing wrong. “It was amazing,” she says. “We went to labs that we knew tend to be pretty messy and leave stuff out. Nothing fell, nothing broke. This is a testament to how well they build these buildings these days,” she says. TSRI’s Beckman Center for Chemical Sciences was completed in 1996.

At the University of San Diego, “Some drawers were open and that was pretty much it,” says Debbie Tahmassebi, chair of the chemistry & biochemistry department at USD. “Our lab tech went around the labs and checked everything. I think he said that there was one graduated cylinder that had fallen over but nothing was broken.”

Her department is also in a new building that has the same features in place as at IVC. Still, Tahmassebi and colleagues are evaluating whether they need to do anything else to prepare for earthquakes. One focus is instrumentation–computers, spectrometers, and chromatography instruments that might be able to “walk” off a table or bench during an earthquake. “We might be able to strap them onto the benchtops so they’re a bit more secure,” Tahmassebi says. (Full Story)



ContactDebbie Tahmassebi | | (619) 260-7454
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