The King of Hazardous Waste

Marcial Aguinaldo stands in front of a chemical hood used to bulk waste.

Marcial Aguinaldo stands in front of a chemical hood used to bulk waste.

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In 1997, a UCSF scientist named Stanley Prusiner received the Nobel Prize in Physiology for discovering prions, the proteins responsible for mad cow and new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob diseases.

While the world turned to San Francisco to understand the mysterious infectious agent that was killing humans and livestock abroad, another UC employee, getting far less recognition, was also trying to stop the spread of prions.

Marcial Aguinaldo had to manage the biological waste coming from Prusiner’s and other campus labs.

Aguinaldo is Mission Bay’s “king of hazardous waste,” according to his boss, D. Travis Clark, an environmental health & safety specialist with the university.

With his team of seven technicians, Aguinaldo is in charge of picking up, consolidating, and packing off radiological, biological, and chemical waste produced by labs and medical offices at 14 UCSF facilities, including all of the Mission Bay campus. It’s a job that requires a deep knowledge of chemistry and biology, as well as the flexibility to adapt to thousands of researchers and a constantly shifting smorgasbord of chemicals.

“I still have my ten fingers,” the 51-year-old joked recently about his nearly three decades of handling carcinogenic, radioactive, toxic, and explosive materials.

It’s a career that started modestly.  After graduating in chemistry, Aguinaldo immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1982, following his father and two of his sisters.

His first UC job was advertised as “animal care”  or as he described it recently,  “king of the tiny ball,” in charge of cleaning animal droppings.  Within a few years, he had moved into radioactive waste and then all kinds of hazardous waste – and the labs produce a wide variety.

Virtually every lab requires the use of some materials that are classified as hazardous – from batteries to radioactive isotopes – and once those materials get used in an experiment, UCSF has 90 days to get the waste off site and on its way to the appropriate, licensed facility.

Once you create hazardous waste, it’s yours forever, from cradle to grave.  So UCSF must track its waste, even as it travels to Utah or another state for treatment. A treatment facility has 35 days to send a receipt back, letting UCSF know it received the waste. Otherwise, UCSF calls up to find out where the waste drum went.

“We don’t want to see our drums floating in the Pacific Ocean,” Aguinaldo said.

To do it right, Aginaldo has developed some of his own procedures.

When Prusiner discovered infectious prions, the standard way to store prion lab waste was in sodium hydroxide solution, a caustic base that denatures the prions thereby neutralizing them.

But Aguinaldo wasn’t so sure the prions were completely destroyed. What if the vendor treating the waste – UCSF doesn’t have authority to treat its own hazardous waste – unwittingly brought down the pH and even a tiny fraction of the prions bounced back to their former shape and escaped into the environment?

Not a pretty picture.  So Aguinaldo decided the labs should go one step further: the neutralized waste should also be incinerated.

His team of hazardous waste technicians does some of its scariest work in a room on the ground floor of UCSF’s Genentech Hall. It’s there that they pack chemical waste, mixing compatible compounds before sending them out for treatment.

Called the “bulking room,” the small chamber is equipped with explosion-proof electrical switches and sits atop two 1,000-gallon storage tanks.  The tanks are there to catch contaminated water if the sprinklers are triggered by fire.

The first step in consolidating chemical waste is putting on a respirator.  The second is to check one’s  mental state.  Calm is what you want.  If technicians are irate for any reason, Aguinaldo has the cure.  “I’ll tell them go walk for 15 minutes, “ he said.

Every new substance that’s “bulked” for transport is micro-tested first.  Tiny amounts are combined and the pH is gauged. It’s a process that UCSF adopted in part because of Aguinaldo’s experience.

In 1988, he poured a bottle of liquid into a large waste storage drum. The lab had labeled it with a pH of 7, the same acidity as plain water.

But the whole drum shook.

Aguinaldo stopped pouring instantly, and marched straight back to the lab where the bottle came from.

“Tell me, do you have something else in there?” he recalls asking the PhD student who created the waste. He did — trifluoroacetic acid, a corrosive chemical and common reagent used to synthesize biological molecules.

They tested the pH of the bottle. Instead of 7, it was 2, extremely acidic.

Subsequently UCSF changed its procedures to add the micro and pH-tests.

Waste is under the authority of UCSF’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety, which also handles safety. Researchers must complete regular safety trainings before being allowed to use chemicals or biological and radiological materials.

If they don’t, their labs risk losing permits, or in rare instances,  getting locked out of their own labs. Health and safety officials carry a big stick over researchers.  If the latter don’t comply, they can lose their government funding.

“A principal investigator never wants the NIH to find out they’ve been suspended for safety violations,” said Clark, the university’s environmental health & safety specialist.

UCSF researchers occasionally get into accidents, usually because they violated some safety code. For example,  a PhD student recently was burned after he spilled a mix of phenol and chloroform on his legs. Phenol-chloroform is usually used to purify RNA, the intermediary chemical between DNA and protein production in a cell.

It turns out the student was wearing shorts  – a violation – and also working with the wrong kind of gloves. OSHA fined UCSF more than $20,000, according to Clark.

If Aguinaldo makes a mistake, the state fines the university $27,000 per violation per day for waste, until the problem is fixed.

However, unlike the researchers, Aguinaldo’s had virtually no accidents. That is, except for the year UCSF decided to hire college students to work with him as technicians.

Aguinaldo had one charge, a young man he described as “really curious.”

He told the student to unload some bottled chemicals from a truck and then went upstairs.

When he returned, he noticed immediately that the student had on a fresh lab coat and had spread around a lot of vermiculite, a substance used to absorb chemical spills. Then the student turned, and Aguinaldo saw he wasn’t wearing a shirt.

“I was so scared,” Aguinaldo said. It turned out the student had starting mixing chemicals all on his own – out of curiosity. It was a small amount, but he’d mixed an oxidizer with an acid, and it exploded.

“What saved his eyes are really the goggles,” Aguinaldo said.

“Lucky guy, he saw the plastic bulging, and he was able to back out.”

Needless to say, that was the end of employing student help. Nowadays, the technicians are all permanent and fully trained employees.

That doesn’t stop the constant need to communicate with students and professors working in the labs, scientists who come from any number of countries and cultural backgrounds.

Some have never considered treating milder chemicals as waste.

“Why don’t we do this?” he said he tells the tougher customers when they want to dump something down the drain.”Try drinking it first.”

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