August 16, 2008

Authorities Shut Down Secret Lab in Marlboro: The Rights and Ethics of Victor Deeb

A rather unusual local incident is making national headlines and apparently garnering a good deal of attention from the science community. Victor Deeb, a man who has worked in polymer chemistry for 45 years, had set up a lab in his home to continue his work after his retirement. His home is in a residential neighborhood in Marlboro, MA. Recently, a fire broke out there and when the fire department entered the house, they found more than 1500 unlabeled and improperly stored containers of chemicals there. There are specific zoning ordinances on the books that prohibit siting a research laboratory, particularly one that doesn't include standard safety equipment and procedures, in a residential area. As a result, Deeb's chemicals were seized and his lab shut down.

According to a story in today's Worcester Telegram & Gazette:

Since Mr. Deeb's situation was revealed in news reports last week, sympathizers and fellow scientists have been voicing support for Mr. Deeb on the Internet. Ms. Wilderman [Marlboro code enforcement officer] said she has received calls from people around the country criticizing the city for putting an end to Mr. Deeb's work.

Chemist considers legal action over materials seized

It's quite possible that the T&G isn't being clear on what kind of support Deeb is receiving from fellow scientists. Perhaps they're saying that the authorities should go easy on him in terms of any charges, but I have a hard time believing that any scientist worth their lab coat would be in support of what Deeb was doing. Personally, I find it to be a significant lapse in his ethical judgment.

As stated, there were zoning ordinances that Deeb violated. These kinds of ordinances are at least in part measures to protect public safety. Deeb's being a scientist, even if he were a Nobel Prize recipient in his field, doesn't give him any more license to disregard them than would a very good businessman deciding would have in deciding to put a small factory in a neighborhood without telling anyone. In fact, an even better analogy would be for someone to decide to open an outdoor firing range in their backyard and claim that it didn't pose a potential hazard to the public because of their excellent marksmanship. People who live in a residential neighborhood also have rights, and among these are the right to expect that ordinary precautions are being observed to keep their homes safe from unnecessary hazards to their health. A stray bullet or a chemical release can have the same net effect on the health of one's neighbors and part of the proper role of laws and government is to strike a proper balance of the rights of one person with those of others.

Deeb also disregarded the safety of others by not following chemical safety standards. According to Pamela Wilderman, "Boxes of stuff was just thrown on the floor... It was a mess. It was a hazardous materials incident just waiting to happen. … He was keeping flammable chemicals right next to his furnace." Deeb counters this by stating that
The materials he was using were all approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Mr. Deeb says, and were no more toxic than bleach, acetone and common household products stored under most kitchen sinks. He lives with his wife and their 18-year-old son, and he says he would never bring anything into the house that could harm them.
Whether or not Deeb thought that his informal laboratory could pose a threat to his family is immaterial, but I find his statement that the chemicals were no more dangerous than acetone to be rather telling. Acetone is far from harmless. In fact, it's a rather dangerous chemical flammable chemical, resulting in its having been removed from most household products. According to a Material Safety Data Sheet for acetone:

Inhalation of vapors irritates the respiratory tract. May cause coughing, dizziness, dullness, and headache. Higher concentrations can produce central nervous system depression, narcosis, and unconsciousness...

Above flash point [-20°C], vapor-air mixtures are explosive within flammable limits noted above. Vapors can flow along surfaces to distant ignition source and flash back. Contact with strong oxidizers may cause fire. Sealed containers may rupture when heated. This material may produce a floating fire hazard. Sensitive to static discharge...
If Deeb thinks that acetone is safe and harmless, one must question his judgment. Moreover, to state that the uncombined chemicals he had lying about his home are themselves harmless is a disingenuous assertion at best. The question still remains as to what is produced when those chemicals combined and whether or not he was taking the proper precautions to prevent spontaneous combinations that could have resulted in fire, explosion, or the release of toxins. Any fool can tell you that household bleach and ammonia aren't particularly dangerous when properly stored and separated but that combining the two can result in severe and permanent injury due to the release of potentially deadly vapors.

Still, Deeb is said to now be considering a lawsuit:
"I strongly believe they have violated my civil rights," he said. "I was not doing anything immoral down there … They can't all of a sudden tear my experiments apart."
Perhaps the fire department should simply have let Deeb's house burn down? Once he requested the assistance of the fire department, no search warrant is needed. Deeb gave his consent to having the authorities enter his home and they found a major potential hazard there. Whether or not he was doing anything "immoral" is a red herring that stinks from here to San Diego and back. What he was doing was certainly illegal and, I think, highly unethical. The authorities had every right to come in "all of a sudden" and "tear his experiments apart." In fact, once they entered the premises they not only had the right to do so, they had a responsibility to do so because the place was on fire and they were confronted with large quantities of unknown chemicals. This is no different than if a fire department were called to a warehouse and found barrels of flammable chemicals stored there improperly. What was done here is what fire departments and environmental protection offices are supposed to do. It's why we have them in civilized society in the first place.

Something else that Deeb said leads me to question his ethics.
The work he was doing was well-intentioned, Mr. Deeb says. His projects include developing sealants and coating for the inside of lids for food containers, such as jelly and baby food. When melted at recycling plants, the metal lids of many food containers release dioxin — a harmful carcinogen — into the air. Mr. Deeb says he was trying to develop a safer lid. If he were to find a successful recipe, Mr. Deeb said, he would market his product to chemical companies.
What Deeb was trying to do is, at base, noble enough. I would be hard pressed to come up with an argument against decreasing the release of dioxin into the environment. Nonetheless, Deeb certainly had remuneration in mind here. If so, why not do what any other researcher does and find grants or backers to fund his research so that he can work in proper facilities? That he didn't do so raises my suspicion that he was seeking to maximize his profits and keep his overhead low so that he could reap the greatest possible rewrds if his work was successful. Despite his protestations that the chemicals with which he was working were as safe as household products, an assertion already countered, the fact is that polymer chemistry demands the use of any number of solvents and polymerization catalysts that are not safe at all. While I can't say what specific chemicals he may have had on his premises — at this point it seems that only Deeb himself knows for sure — I do know enough organic chemistry to know that anything from concentrated hydrochloric acid to benzenes and aldehydes might have been part of Deeb's chemical morass.

As part of the dismantling of his laboratory, the authorities seized Deeb's research notes. According to the article:
Mr. Deeb protests that authorities seized even the notes and observations he has recorded over the past 20 years, but Ms. Wilderman said he was given more than one opportunity to retrieve those notes, and that he declined...
Why is this the case? Deeb himself tells us more:
...he doesn't have any immediate plans to continue his work.

"How can I?" he said. "I am a creative guy who needs to have an outlet. That was my outlet. That was my domain."
In light of his consideration of suing over this, I call shenanigans on Deeb. If he really needs this "creative outlet," why not get his notes back and continue his work in a proper laboratory where safety measures are followed and accountability maintained? Nobody is stopping Deeb from pursuing his creativity in an appropriate environment, and so far he hasn't been arrested or charged with the commission of any offense that would prevent him from doing so. On the other hand, I think that the discovery of his recklessness may well have deservedly ruined his reputation at this point. As someone who works in a laboratory, I would turn around and walk right back out the door if I walked into an environment like that described by the firefighters and hazardous materials team at Deeb's home/lab. Frankly, I would question the judgment and even the sanity of the individuals responsible for running a lab like Deeb's and would do the prudent thing by not risking my own well-being by working in such an environment. Indeed, a lab subject to regulation and responsibility that was in such a state would likely be shut down and ordered to conform to standards in short order, and well it should be. The first word that comes to my mind in picturing a lab like Deeb's is appalling. I can't imagine that anyone who knew what they were doing would subject themselves to such a situation.

The closure of Deeb's residential polymer chemistry lab is being viewed by many people as a violation of his civil rights. In the commentary to an article on the situation that ran in yesterday's edition of the paper, it's easy enough to find statements like this one:
...This is a symptom of a broader current of the abridgment of fundamental rights in this country which is sincerely frightening. One wonders how these same 'officials' might have shot Benjamin Franklin for flying a key laden kite, or George Washington Carver for being so suspiciously interested in peanuts...


Of course, the work of Franklin and Carver didn't involve the illegal and improper storage of potentially hazardous chemicals in a residential area and occurred at a time when people were also routinely poisoned by unregulated and tainted agricultural products in large numbers and we didn't have a pretty good handle on the potential health risks associated with chemical exposure. The point is that while it's healthy to be skeptical, even suspicious, of any government, paranoia doesn't help anyone. Deeb's neighbors have more right to live in a safe neighborhood than Deeb himself has to have his secret laboratory in their midst. Deeb could have, and still could, do the right thing and secure proper facilities to continue his research. He is still a free man and likely to remain so. He still has the right to vote, to own property, and to be free from unreasonable search and seizure (the search and seizure that took place was entirely reasonable, for the reasons already stated). There is no civil right that allows one to pose a hazard to others and there is no particular guarantee of the freedom to locate a research facility anywhere one has the whim to do so.

Ultimately, in fact, what Deeb has done is to violate the civil rights of others. People have the right to know of hazards which exist in their homes. Deeb withheld that information until his own well-being was in peril and a fire broke out. It is a good thing for the sake of his neighbors that the fire started in an air conditioner and not among the boxes, vials and jars of chemicals or the situation might have been much more unfortunate. That Deeb actively skirted the law for his own benefit and thereby put others in danger speaks to some combination of a lack of judgment and an ethical compass.

If there are any scientists out there who really do believe that what Deeb was doing was ethically correct, I'd like to know how you come to that conclusion. Personally, I don't see a path leading from Deeb's actions to anything justifiable or even particularly wholesome.

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