Conservation DistList Archives [Date] [Subject] [Author] [SEARCH]

Subject: Fire and alcohol

Fire and alcohol

From: Sally Shelton <libsdnhm>
Date: Tuesday, February 22, 1994
This message is being cross-posted to both museum conservation and
safety lists and may be forwarded.

We are facing a problem that has come up at other natural history
museums when the issue of fire safety and labeling arises: namely, what
are we, really? The issue arises in dealing with what are commonly
called "wet" or "fluid" collections, those collections of animals or
tissues preserved in alcohol or other volatile solvents. The fire
marshal here will continue to cite us until we have placed a universal
warning label on every jar containing specimens in our collections. In
many cases, this label is larger than the jar label, and sometimes
larger than the jar.

In our collections, there are literally millions of specimens in
ethanol. The number of labels which would have to be generated is in the
hundreds of thousands.

We label and contain containers of undispensed chemicals, but the
preservative in the specimen jars is diluted to 70% ethanol before it is
used. As John Simmons of the University of Kansas and others have shown,
the concentration level often continues to drop when specimens are
stored in the alcohol. A 70% level appears to be optimum for the
prevention of biodeterioration of specimens.

We are attempting to identify and isolate those specimen jars containing
any of the more dangerous solvents, but those are a tiny minority.

There is not yet any sort of fireproofing of the storage rooms
themselves, and no explosion-proofing. Building upgrades are in the

My question is this: since there do not seem to be fire codes written
for this type of situation (we seem to be closest to codes for liquor
warehouses), how much of this is subjective interpretation and how much
is common sense when it comes to labeling every jar? Has anyone else
faced these requirements? I am certainly willing to comply with
everything we need to do, but this one puzzles me. It will increase
handling (and consequent wear) of the specimens if the hazard label
obscures the information label. We have suggested labeling the door to
the storage area, but that is considered additional, not alternative.
Comments and advice are much appreciated.

Sally Shelton
Collections Conservation Specialist
San Diego Natural History Museum

                  Conservation DistList Instance 7:62
                Distributed: Thursday, February 24, 1994
                        Message Id: cdl-7-62-003
Received on Tuesday, 22 February, 1994

[Search all CoOL documents]