Though laboratory safety and security measures were tightened after the bioterrorism scare that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a recent incident has caused some to worry about whether chemicals stored at the University are actually secure.
A non-University affiliate is being held in Washtenaw County Jail on three counts of larceny after allegedly asking researchers working in the Medical Science Unit II Building for various chemicals.
Claiming to be a researcher working in the building, Ann Arbor resident Daniel Lexington, 45, asked multiple people in the building for various chemicals, including magnesium sulfate, zinc sulfate, bisulfite, ammonium nitrate and potassium permanganate.
Lexington was arrested late Thursday night and arraigned in 15th District Court Saturday for committing larceny under false pretenses and trespassing, Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Diane Brown said. He is also charged for committing two previous and unrelated misdemeanors, including another trespass charge.
He was arraigned in Washtenaw County Circuit Court with three counts of committing larceny from a building. He could receive four years in jail for the larceny counts, which are felonies, Brown said.
Workers refused to give Lexington the ammonium nitrate, which can be used as an explosive, and potassium permanganate. He was given small amounts of the others, Brown said. The chemicals were valued at less than $200.
“They are not rare, and he got very, very small quantities, which were returned,” Brown said. She said she could not comment about the man’s reasoning for wanting the chemicals.
The incident has prompted the University’s Occupational Safety and Environmental Health Department to further review lab safety and security procedures.
Currently, labs around the University do not follow one standard security procedure, OSEH Director Terrance Alexander said. Instead, security changes according to how hazardous the substance is, as well as different units within the University employ different practices.
Alexander said he is working to revise the guidelines so that one standard is employed throughout the entire University, though he added that different units would still be able to deviate from that standard.
“As far as individual unit security, it’s up to them,” he said. “We are working on a guideline that will provide common sense measures that other units can follow across campus. Once the basic measures are in place, then each unit can take it and build upon it.”
He added that since none of the substances given to Lexington are rare or hazardous, they are not under the same type of security as other chemicals, such as radioisotopes, which require specific authorization and identification in order to obtain them.
Even when combined with each other, “the three things that he did receive are not explosives,” Alexander said.
Magnesium sulfate is commonly referred to as Epsom salts, which are commonly used to relax muscles. Zinc sulfate is a colorless and transparent water soluble substance commonly used in fertilizers, leather preservatives and agricultural sprays and as a medicine that constricts body tissues.
There are several kinds of bisulfite substances, including ammonium bisulfite and sodium bisulfite. Most bisulfites are used as food preservatives, Alexander said.
Ammonium nitrate is also primarily used as a fertilizer, but according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, can be used as an explosive when mixed with other chemicals under certain conditions. The EPA produced a chemical safety alert for the substance in 1997.
Potassium permanganate is commonly used as a disinfectant.
Lexington is currently being held on a $50,000 bond, Brown said. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for Dec. 4.