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Did Lax Laboratory Safety Practices Kill This UCLA Chemist?

In her first year out of college, Sheri Sangji was fatally burned at work. Will her death teach academics to protect their lab staff?

| Sat Jul. 28, 2012 11:39 AM EDT

Sheri Sangji was on fire instantly. The 23-year-old research associate had accidentally pulled the plunger out of a syringe while conducting an experiment in a UCLA laboratory. In the syringe was a solution that would combust upon contact with air. It spilled onto Sangji's hands and body. 

She wasn't wearing a lab coat; no one had told her to. The fire burned through her gloves, then her hands. She inhaled toxic, superheated gases given off by her burning polyester sweater, a process that accelerated as she ran and screamed.

It was the afternoon of December 29, 2008. Campus was mostly quiet for the holidays, but chemistry professor Patrick Harran's team was at work. He was in his office, one floor up from Room 4221 of the Molecular Sciences Building, where at his direction Sangji had been trying to produce a chemical that held promise as an appetite suppressant. She was unsupervised.

Two postdoctoral fellows were nearby when Sangji caught fire. One ran upstairs to summon Harran; the other tried to smother the fire with his lab coat. He didn't think to put Sangji under an emergency shower a few feet away. By now, deep burns covered almost half her body.

Harran found Sangji "sitting on the floor," her clothes "either caked to her or burned off," he later told an investigator. Eighteen days later, on January 16, 2009, Sangji died from her wounds.

"Sheri was a young girl who was working in a laboratory in one of the largest and most prestigious universities in the world," says Sangji's older sister, Naveen, now a surgical resident in Boston. "There should be no safer place for someone to go to work. Instead, she never got to come back home."


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An unprecedented prosecution

In December 2011, the Los Angeles County district attorney filed a criminal complaint against Harran and the regents of the University of California alleging "willful violation of an occupational safety and health standard causing the death of an employee"—the first time an American university professor had been accused of a felony in connection with the death of a worker.

On Friday, the criminal case against the university regents was dropped after they agreed to establish a $500,000 scholarship fund in Sangji's name at the University of California-Berkeley. They also promised to implement new safety measures, including requiring all of UCLA's principal investigators, such as Harran, and their lab employees to complete a safety training program within 60 days. The criminal case against Harran, who faces up to 4 1/2 years in jail, continues; his arraignment was postponed until September 5.

But Sangji's death has had effects far beyond those court cases. Faculty members, department heads and deans across the country have followed the developments with consternation: Might they, too, be criminally liable if something happened in one of their labs? "The district attorney got the attention of every research institution in the United States," says Harry Elston, editor of the Journal of Chemical Health and Safety.

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