A professional chemist doing for profit chemistry is not a hobbyist

Earlier this week Greg Laden posted an intriguing article, Home Chemistry Hobbyist Shut Down in Massachusetts. He had picked up on this story via a post at the MAKE magazine Blog, Home science under attack. Both of the blogs where basing their commentary on this one article from the August 9th edition of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Let me start by summarizing the story as reported by two local newspapers, see the links below for the full text of the seven newspaper articles I found.

On the afternoon of August 5th 2008 the Marlborough Massachusetts Fire Department responded to a call of a fire in a two story house on Fremont Street. When they arrived they found a fire in a window air conditioner of a second floor bedroom and the lone occupant of the house at the time, homeowner Victor Deeb, had safely gotten out. The firemen put the fire out in about a minute but by that time there was more than a thousand dollars worth of smoke damage to the bedroom.  [updated 8/18 with information from Mr. Deeb’s comment] If this had happened to me I would have turned off the power to the air conditioner and put the fire out with a fire extinguisher avoiding the major smoke damage from waiting for the fire department to arrive. Since Mr. Deeb is a 71 year old who uses a cane to get around it is perfectly understandable why he called the fire department instead. [Mr. Deeb was trying to use a fire extinguisher on the fire when a passing Policeman saw the smoke and called the fire department.] (Photo of Mr. Deeb speaking to Police after the fire was put out, from The MetroWest Daily News)

The firefighters then followed standard procedures and checked that all the spaces in the house had been ventilated to remove the smoke and prevent further damage. When they went down into the basement they discovered a chemical R&D laboratory containing more than 100 unlabeled containers of chemicals [Mr. Deeb seems to dispute this]. The chemicals where in assorted containers from quart size up to 20 gallon drums some on shelves and some just sitting on the basement floor. Fire department officials attempted to find permits issued to Mr. Deeb for the storage of large quantities of chemicals but where unable to find any permits. The fire department then contacted the state fire marshal’s office who in turn called in the state bomb squad. If Mr. Deeb had obtained permits for possessing large quantities of chemicals they could have avoided the bomb squad but without the permits they had to take the safe approach and treat this as a potentially dangerous situation in a residential neighborhood. At no time did the authorities claim that Mr. Deeb was making weapons or drugs they simply had no way to know what was in the containers and without permits they could not simply take Mr. Deeb’s word for it that these unlabeled chemicals were not dangerous.

The Fire Department advised Mr. Deeb that this situation would take many hours to clear up so he should find a place to stay for a while. Mr. Deeb took the advise of the fire department and left with his family. Over the next two days the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and local authorities, with the cooperation of Mr. Deeb, removed over 1,500 containers of chemicals none of which turned out to be a biological or radioactive risk. Mr. Deeb and his family were allowed to return to their home on August 8th after the laboratory was safely dismantled and taken away. A hazardous materials cleanup company was contracted by MA DEP to test and then properly dispose of the chemicals. The Marlborough Department of Public Works is running tests to make sure none of the chemicals seeped into the town sewer system. While Mr. Deeb has likely violated numerous state and local safety regulations and laws, as of Saturday the 9th no citations had yet been issued.

This Saturday’s (8/16) Worcester Telegram & Gazette article has more details about the incident. The FBI showed up to take a look and there were thirty-five 20 gallon drums of chemicals that the hazmat contractor had to take for analysis and disposal. His laboratory was a mess with flammable chemicals stored next to the home’s furnace. By his own admission Mr. Deeb is a retired chemist who was very clearly running a for profit chemical R&D laboratory out of his basement in a residential neighborhood. He is considering suing the city for taking down his lab because he thinks his civil rights have been violated.

IMO, the fire department and other city and state officials did absolutely nothing wrong. They certainly did not violate Mr. Deeb’s civil rights because there is no civil right to possess and improperly store large quantities of regulated chemicals in your home. The officials had every right to enter his lab without a search warrant because they were called to the home by him [there] to put out a fire.

Mr. Deeb may be a very good chemist in fact judging by the number of patents he appears on it is almost a certainty. He has clearly been running a business from his home at least since 11/1/98. However he clearly does not understand laboratory safety rules, you must always properly label and store chemicals. Flammable chemicals like the acetone he had must be stored in fire proof cabinets not sitting on the floor or shelf and/or near a furnace. Mr. Deeb could not handle a small fire without the assistance of the fire department so obviously he couldn’t be trusted to handle a laboratory fire. He appears to not understand the need for permits and zoning clearance for commercial chemical research laboratories.

The reaction on the Internet is so far over the top I’m astounded. It seems that most of the people commenting on this story have made no effort to read the articles and are simply jumping to totally absurd conclusions based on preconceived notions. Here’s a list of my responses to the wild commentary and claims that are spreading across the Internet.

  1. Mr. Deebs was not a hobbyist, he freely admits this was a for profit R&D laboratory. Even without his admission the fact that he had hundreds of containers of chemicals including 35 twenty gallon drums puts him way beyond the hobbyist level.
  2. The government did not target Mr. Deeb in any way, they came to his aid when he called [put out a fire] and found him violating safety and zoning regulations.
  3. No government agency is going to come to your house because you gave your child a home chemistry set for Christmas.
  4. Having retail containers of household chemicals is not equivalent to having large quantities of industrial chemicals.
  5. The City Government of Marlborough Massachusetts is in no way comparable to the Nazi’s. Oh and it’s spelled Marlborough not Marlboro, that’s a brand of cigarettes.
  6. Thomas Edison did not set up laboratories in residential neighborhoods, he knew what he was doing could be hazardous so his laboratories where in private compounds and/or industrial districts.
  7. The police did not raid Mr. Deeb’s home, they did not kick down his door.
  8. Doing scientific research on a home computer is in no way even remotely equivalent to running an R&D laboratory with large quantities of chemicals.
  9. There was no fourth amendment violation, see number two above.
  10. That he has not yet been charged is not proof he didn’t break laws.
  11. This incident will not lead to the government burning our books.
  12. Mr. Deeb is not even remotely like a terrorist, any mention of 9/11 is absolutely ridiculous.
  13. Football is in no danger of being banned.
  14. Marlborough Massachusetts is not a police state.
  15. This is not equivalent to the two Steve’s founding Apple Computer in a garage, Woz is far too intelligent to improperly label and store large quantities of industrial chemicals.
  16. Ditto for Hewlett and Packard.
  17. Practicing putting in your living room, baking cookies for church, scrap booking and doing transcriptions are not even remotely similar to what Mr. Deeb did.
  18. The citizens of Massachusetts have rights, in fact we have some rights most other states do not grant to their citizens. e.g. Marrying the person you want to.
  19. This is not like outlawing innovation.
  20. Mr. Deeb did NOT take proper laboratory safety precautions, unlabeled and improperly stored containers is very bad.
  21. Building your own PC and running Linux on it are not going to get you into the trouble Mr. Deeb is in.
  22. The safety of Mr. Deeb’s neighbors IS the responsibility of the government.
  23. Mr. Deeb was not picked on because he was racially profiled as being of Middle Eastern descent.
  24. A hobbyist darkroom in your home is not equivalent to a R&D laboratory. A commercial darkroom on the other hand is regulated in similar ways to a R&D chemical lab.
  25. There were dangerous chemicals in Mr. Deeb’s laboratory by his own admission there was acetone. What the government officials have said is there where no biological or radiological hazards and no exceptionally explosive chemicals.
  26. Mr. Deeb did not give the fire fighters an inventory of the chemicals in his laboratory. Either he did not have an inventory or he wanted them to have to call in the bomb squad and hazmat teams, I’m guessing he didn’t have an inventory list.
  27. Making beer in your basement for personal use is not like a commercial research chemical laboratory.

I know it’s hard to research stories but that doesn’t excuse people from the obligation to examine the evidence. I’m most disappointed that so many people jump right to parroting the poorly researched and quote mined work of others to justify their preconceived notions. Any of these people who have integrity should take the time to read the articles, Google Victor M. Deeb and then post updates to correct their bogus reporting.

I have found one well researched response on the net, Mike O’Risal’s post is a very good read. Having read a number of excellent posts and comments by Mike over the past year, today I’ve added his blog to my reader and blogroll. On top of his good writing I need to start reading him regularly because he lives in my county, Worcester (pronounced Woostah in my native Yankee accent).

I’m sorry that Mr. Deeb has lost his R&D laboratory and likely will close his business. However, he should have followed the rules for running a commercial laboratory and gotten the proper permits and zoning variances. He may be ignorant of the law but that is not a valid excuse especially when you are running a for profit business.

The MetroWest Daily News articles:

Worcester Telegram & Gazette articles:

Victor Deeb’s business: