Beware: Protecting yourself and the environment against chromatography hazards

Chromatographers often forget about the adverse effects of the chromatography process, as it is a technique that is so commonly used for a countless number of applications. In this post, I attempt to shed a light on common chromatography hazards and risks. I focus on three potential areas of a chromatography experiment that can have negative consequences for user and environmental health. I also discuss options on how to improve and green up the process.  

The other day I listened to a fascinating debate between a vegan and a carnivore colleague about the environmental impact of their diets. The meat-lover argued that vegan food can be just as damaging for the environment as meat-based meals. His example was tofu production, which results in substantial greenhouse gas emissions. But I think the vegan got the upper hand. She argued that based on scientific evidence, the highest-impact vegetable protein from tofu, still has a lower carbon footprint than the lowest-impact animal proteins from eggs and chicken.

It got me thinking about our own environmental impact in the laboratory. We, as scientists, can fully grasp how fragile our ecosystems are, but our experiments only add to the environmental damage. But I am glad to see that there is a general movement towards green chemistry and green chromatography.

I even committed to performing more green chromatography as a new year’s resolution. If you think about it, experiments that are more ecofriendly are also better for the user’s health.

So how can you perform green chromatography yourself?

Well, there are three major areas that I would like to focus on when it comes to chromatography hazards:

  • The toxicity of the organic solvents used as a mobile phase
  • The use of a fume hood to perform chromatography
  • The impact of accidents while performing preparative chromatography

Organic solvents in the mobile phase

One of the most toxic parts of performing flash chromatography is the use of organic solvents in the mobile phase. To minimize this chromatography hazard, you should plan your experiment carefully, only with the required number of samples. To reduce the total amount of organic solvent used, chromatographers could try to use columns with smaller lengths, internal diameters and particle sizes. You could also substitute commonly used toxic solvents, such as acetonitrile, with other mobile phases, such as methanol and DMSO.

In certain cases, it may be appropriate to use a mobile phase recycler to reduce the amount of hazardous waste a chromatographic run generates. Discarded equipment should also be thoroughly cleaned prior to disposal to prevent toxic material from entering the environment. For this purpose, scientists could rely on a modern chromatography system with flash cartridges with an air purge function. This feature removes solvents before the cartridge is disposed of.

Fume hood use

As organic solvents in the mobile phase are toxic, all HPLC-grade solvents need to be handled in a laboratory fume hood to reduce human exposure to the chemicals. Although fume hoods protect the health of the scientist, they are detrimental to the environment.

Buildings with fume hoods require four to five times as much energy as buildings without them.

To find a better solution that protects both your well-being and the environment, you could consider a chromatography system like Pure with an enclosed fraction collector that is actively ventilated. The lab air is kept clean, but there is a substantial decrease in energy consumption, which reduces the environmental footprint of the chromatography process.

Minimizing accidents

Uncontrolled release of toxic material is one of the most dangerous chromatography hazards both for users and for their surroundings. There, chemists could invest in chromatography equipment that can offer them the best protection possible. For example, the enclosed fraction collector of the Pure chromatography system eliminates the need to perform chromatography in a fume hood. This design supports best use of lab space and could prevent accidents due to overcrowding. The Pure platform also offers the possibility to store up to four solvent bottles on top of the instrument, again optimizing lab space. This feature helps reduce risk of spills and protects the user, the environment and the sample.

In summary, it is incredibly important to handle organic solvents with care and pay attention to their environmental impact. Scientists could also look at alternatives to fume hood use and inform themselves on how to prevent accidents during the chromatography run.

For more green tips, check out a concise booklet on the topic: “Pure Tips on how to maintain a green, clean chromatography lab”.

I will go grab a tofu burger now and I will see you soon back on the blog!


Till next time,

The Signature of Bart Denoulet at Bart's Blog