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How Regulations Hamper Chemical Hobbyists 610

An anonymous reader writes "Chemical & Engineering News just ran this story that relates how government regulations create a terribly restrictive atmosphere for people who do chemistry as a hobby. (A related story was previously posted.)" The article gives some examples of why hamfisted regulations are harmful even to those who aren't doing the chemistry themselves: "Hobby chemists will tell you that home labs have been the source of some of chemistry's greatest contributions. Charles Goodyear figured out how to vulcanize rubber with the same stove that his wife used to bake the family's bread. Charles Martin Hall discovered the economical electrochemical process for refining aluminum from its ore in a woodshed laboratory near his family home. A plaque outside Sir William Henry Perkin's Cable Street residence in London notes that the chemist 'discovered the first aniline dyestuff, March 1856, while working in his home laboratory on this site and went on to found science-based industry.'"
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How Regulations Hamper Chemical Hobbyists

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  • by smittyoneeach ( 243267 ) * on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @11:34AM (#25720901) Homepage Journal
    When your bureacratic reactant
    Is but a silly distractant
    Try the anionic surfactant:
    Burma Shave
  • by diskofish ( 1037768 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @11:36AM (#25720921)
    I am a hobby chemist. I make things like pies, cakes and coconut cookies. Tonight the kitchen, tomorrow the world!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @11:39AM (#25720979)

    Chemical Hobbyist? Is that like a drug user?

  • Doomsday. (Score:5, Funny)

    by rugatero ( 1292060 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @11:40AM (#25720991)
    Today the mad scientist can't get hazardous chemicals, tomorrow it's the mad grad student! Where will it end?!
    • Re:Doomsday. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by rodrigoandrade ( 713371 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @11:56AM (#25721253)
      Today the terrorist CAN get hazardous chemicals.

      Enough said.
      • Re:Doomsday. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by bsharitt ( 580506 ) <bsharitt AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @12:15PM (#25721555) Homepage Journal

        This is kind of like gun laws. All it really does is keep the stuff out of the hands of law abiding citizens. Most criminals aren't going to care if the substances they are using are illegal for them to have if they're going to use them to break the law anyway.

      • Fear mongering (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Bowling Moses ( 591924 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @01:04PM (#25722383) Journal
        I don't care what "dangerous" chemicals terrorists or any other boogeyman can get their hands on in general. Thats because context matters: that's what compound(s), time, location, amount, etc. We can be reasonable about which chemicals are banned for the home hobbyist, which are restricted (by amount, or maybe a background check) without practically banning dihydrogen monoxide like we are now. Besides everyday household products can contain large amounts of dangerous chemicals anyway. If I want to make home-brew napalm without using any illegal chemicals, it'd be pretty easy to do (dangerous, but easy). Freedom is 100% dead long before you can get 100% security...which doesn't exist anyway.
      • Re:Doomsday. (Score:5, Informative)

        by tylerni7 ( 944579 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @03:41PM (#25724703) Homepage
        It's sad but true, the only one these laws really stop is experimenters. If I wanted to buy a three neck flask (not the most common lab equipment, but still used in a whole lot of syntheses) I can't legally in some states. Is outlawing a piece of glass going to stop drug makers from getting it?

        The thing to remember about people making drugs, is that chemistry isn't a hobby for them. If they need something, and it'll cost them $50 extra so that they can smuggle it into their state, or set up a fake business to get something shipped to, that isn't a problem for them.
        But for the hobbyist, unless they want to become a criminal to do their chemistry a little more safely, there's no way they're going to be able to get what they need.

        In a lot of ways it's cyclical. Ban the tools people need to do chemistry safely, someone gets harmed doing chemistry because they can't get what they need, ban more chemistry equipment from hobbyists.
    • by Tetsujin ( 103070 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @12:59PM (#25722297) Homepage Journal

      It's true, you raise an important point about the mad scientists. How is one supposed to perform mad science without the requisite chemicals? I suppose next they'll ban the use of decorative Tesla coils...

      But there's another angle: we have to consider how this kind of legislation impacts the upstanding, college-educated, pipe-smoking benevolent scientist. How is Small-Town-Plagued-By-Bizarre-Monsters to be saved if their local College-Educated Scientist can't perform the experiments necessary to find the one chemical which will defeat the evil fiends? How will the comrades of said scientist defeat the monsters if they can't travel to a nearby chemical supply warehouse to get the chemical they need in sufficient quantity?

      Now, not all monster scenarios require a chemist, it's true. From time to time a monster will appear whose one weakness is something as simple as Sodium Chloride ("Ordinary table salt!") - but what about the monsters who are vulnerable to sodium in its pure form? Or what if defeating the monsters requires large quantities of hydrochloric acid, or Potassium Iodide, or any one of a number of other sciency-sounding things?

      Yep, before you know it we'll be overrun by superintelligent ants or fish-men or mole people or giant lobsters and then we'll just wish we hadn't cracked down on all this science!

  • by bigattichouse ( 527527 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @11:42AM (#25721037) Homepage
    I make soap, partially for fun and partially due to allergies. I had a neighbor say "You're allowed to do that?" with total disbelief. I also make bread (not on the same day), and had the same reaction.

    I imagine that any kind of scientific exploration is viewed with distrust and quite a bit of fear. My son has recently discovered the world of electronics, and I feel bad for him since even radio shack doesn't carry what it used to.

    I wonder if this shift is endemic in our country, from a nation of strivers to a nation purely of consumers.


    Keep One Eye Open on Craiglist.com - Search hundreds of communities from one place with one click [bigattichouse.com]
    • by Bryansix ( 761547 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @11:50AM (#25721167) Homepage
      Radio Shack had to be profitable so they sold out to the corporate marketing scheme and now they sell more cell phones then anything else. Still the wonder of the Internet can bring almost anything to your door if you are willing to wait a few days.
      • by russotto ( 537200 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @11:57AM (#25721285) Journal

        Still the wonder of the Internet can bring almost anything to your door if you are willing to wait a few days.

        A trip to Home Depot can net some interesting stuff too. Sulfuric acid, Hydrochloric acid, and Potassium Hydroxide, all sold right next to each other in the plumbing aisle.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by d3ac0n ( 715594 )

          So... You can make a really dilute solution of Hydrochloric acid and WATER? How is THAT dangerous?

          (HINT: Sulfuric Acid and Potassium Hydroxide neutralize each other and the resultant material is plain old H2O. Throw in some Hydrochloric acid and you have acidic water.)

      • by Toll_Free ( 1295136 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @12:31PM (#25721847)

        I managed a Radio Shack store, 01-896*, in Florida.

        Radio Shack stopped carrying most things due to liability. They even got sued for a kid coming in, getting a reed switch, and using it to kill his parents (true story).

        From that point on, we where TOLD not to answer any questions, since answering a question can lead to legal actions against both you and the store (it's that entire helping the bad guy thing).

        There are still some good kits available on the internet. Check out Google, it's your friend.


        • by 2short ( 466733 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @01:32PM (#25722847)
          "Radio Shack stopped carrying most things due to liability. They even got sued for a kid coming in, getting a reed switch, and using it to kill his parents (true story)."

          A) [citation needed]

          B) Radio Shack carries reed switches. I bought one last week.

          They don't carry the variety of basic components they used to, because consumer gadgets are more profitable; but they carry some. So I think your liability story is BS.
          • by ivan256 ( 17499 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @02:10PM (#25723463)

            Discrete components have gotten more and more expensive. In the past, the electronic components you bought at Radio Shack were the same parts that were used in the complete devices sold in the same store.

            Today, electronic devices use tiny ASICs under epoxy blobs, surface mount microcontrolers, tiny capacitors and resistors that are sold on a reel and connected by a very precise pick and place machines... The discrete components are now manufactured solely for prototyping and hobby use. With the decrease in volume, the cost has shot up. Not only does that cut into the margins of a company like Radio Shack, but it also inflates the cost of stocking each store.

            On the other hand, an internet supplier only has to keep one set of stock, can sell for less, can keep a wider variety... Radio Shack can't compete with that. They'd be fools to carry the types of components that they used to. Access to parts is greater now than it was anyway.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          From that point on, we where TOLD not to answer any questions

          So, "you've got questions, to freaking bad"?

    • by mustafap ( 452510 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @12:05PM (#25721433) Homepage

      >and I feel bad for him since even radio shack doesn't carry what it used to.

      It's the same where I live ( the UK )
      Radio shack are no longer interested in supplying components, just crap white goods. I can understand why though; whats the profit margin on a resistor? And have you ever stood in line behind the electronics buff who is buying 20 components, and takes half an hour?

      Personally, I think they should install vending machines in Radio Shack for components. I might start using them again if they did!

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by DougWebb ( 178910 )

        whats the profit margin on a resistor?

        Pretty good, probably. In bulk they've got to be really cheap, probably less than a penny each. Put a couple into twenty cents worth of packaging and sell the package for a dollar. Even with the cost of moving the packages to the stores, that's got to be a good markup.

        My guess is that the profit per item was good, but the volume was too low, so the overall ROI for the effort wasn't worthwhile. Selling the same packages over the internet, or just selling the items with m

    • by Fallingcow ( 213461 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @12:21PM (#25721673) Homepage

      This is precisely the sort of thing that Sagan worries about in Demon-Haunted World.

      When science is a distrusted, mysterious thing that only people in white coats and with proper licenses can hope to understand, let alone do, how can we educate new scientists? Will we encourage children to enter the profession? Can we make informed decisions in our political process if we view science in this way?

    • by Sleepy ( 4551 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @02:37PM (#25723873) Homepage

      I make soap, partially for fun and partially due to allergies. I had a neighbor say "You're allowed to do that?" with total disbelief. I also make bread (not on the same day), and had the same reaction.

      I get the same reaction -- I homebrew my own beer and mead. It's fun, and much cheaper to make yourself if you like specialty or hoppy beers. (If you like Bud Miller Coors, don't bother, you can't compete on those economics).

      I've been asked, if everyone brewed their own beer, "wouldn't that hurt American jobs"?

      I'm convinced that 90% of America is incapable of critical thinking, and if you could get them to watch movies like Brazil or Dr. Strangelove or The Mist.. they would NOT get the irony. Another 5% would get it but pretend otherwise, knowing it would be dangerous to irritate a mob. I'm also convinced this explains the popularity of Fox News: catering to the lowest denominator... at least until the economic shit hit the fan.

  • Bad example... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kebes ( 861706 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @11:44AM (#25721067) Journal
    As a chemist, I definitely like the idea of hobby chemists, and/or home laboratories. People should be free to do science at home if they are so inclined. But this is in some sense a bad example:

    Charles Goodyear figured out how to vulcanize rubber with the same stove that his wife used to bake the family's bread.

    You should never use the same equipment for your chemistry as for your other household things. If you're going to do chemistry at home, do it safely. This means having a separate (well-ventilated) room for your work, and using separate ovens, microwave, glassware, and other equipment for your work. Chemical contamination is a real threat. You may look at a chemical reaction and deem all the reactants and products to be safe... but if you make a mistake you may contaminate a room/oven/glassware with a more dangerous side-product. And you do not want to be then ingesting these contaminants (worse, you do not want to expose your family and friends).

    So, like I said, be safe and use dedicated equipment for your experiments. (And don't brush your teeth with the toothbrush you use to clean your test tubes.)

    • by itsdapead ( 734413 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @12:07PM (#25721481)

      You should never use the same equipment for your chemistry as for your other household things.

      Too true. With some of the additives they use these days, the risk of your food contaminating your delicate experiments is just too great. If, say, you got some of that melamine-adulterated Chinese milk mixed up with your reactants, it could really screw up the results!

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        I don't know if you knew this or not, but that's not even a tongue-in-cheek example -- milk powder can be used in polymerase chain reactions (PCR), and is almost certainly the protein source of choice for home molecular biologists.

    • by Deadplant ( 212273 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @12:47PM (#25722121)

      You know it is people like you that have created this scarcity of mutant superheroes.

  • by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @11:46AM (#25721105)
    In the US, even crystalline Iodine is regulated now... but a popular YouTube video made by a free-thinking chemistry hack shows how to make it at home quite easily. Which makes the regulation nothing but expensive bullshit.
  • by zappepcs ( 820751 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @11:52AM (#25721195) Journal

    Don't let people experiment with stuff that they might be able to make a bomb out of, or a meth lab because we law enforcement agents can't tell the difference, and besides, only terrorists and criminals are interested in chemical reactions. right?

    That says nothing about the fact that even if it is illegal, terrorists, criminals, and drug czar wannabes will still have their labs. This can only hurt the honest law abiding citizenry.

    It's about time we had much less government interference, and more government support of engineering and entrepreneurship in these United States. Do you have any idea what it costs for a safe chem storage locker? If price is not enough, they put regulations out to make it near impossible to do simple things, never mind experiment with any chemicals.

    Why would someone want to do that? Hmmm perhaps you might be looking for a heat transfer fluid for a closed system solar power electric generator. Perhaps you are experimenting to find the optimum chemical recipe for heat transfer fluid on a home/earth heating/cooling system for your area. Perhaps you are trying to create a cheap cleaning solution that is environmentally friendly. There are hundreds of reasons that someone might want to set up a chemistry lab at home for hobby use. I mean seriously, if you find a cheap clean easy method to convert old motor oil to some sort of valid fuel... go for it. Perhaps you find the exact chemical soup required for quickly biodegrading rubbish or plastics in a quick ecologically sound manner.

    The roomba did not come from government research facilities or even Boeing or Lockheed-Martin. Why should we expect that all chemical discoveries would come from commercial enterprises? That's just fucking stupid.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @11:59AM (#25721325)

    America's culture of the 21st century is a culture of fear. People fear what they don't understand and because of the modern age of fear selling tactics. If people actually learned something in schools instead of public school being a social experiment, then the public might understand intelligent hobbyists such as this.

    Instead, the media has labeled every science hobbyist as a mass murderer waiting fora chance to unleash their techno-death on the world!!! Mwuhahahah!!! Then it will be robot apocalypse!! Dogs and cats living together!! Mass hysteria!! YES!!!!

  • by gmuslera ( 3436 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @12:07PM (#25721469) Homepage Journal
    Playing with chemistry toys could eventually enable you to do weapons, despite its good uses. A lot of things in a plane (from scissors to suspicious liquids like breast milk) in a plane could be used as weapon eventually.

    But of course, is legal, even is a constitutional right or something similar, to own weapons, things that are only meant to kill, in the US.

    Irony kills too, lets ban it.
  • by verloren ( 523497 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @12:07PM (#25721477)

    Without wishing to sound like a libertarian, this is true for a great many things that are regulated - from the outside those regulations either a) are totally uninteresting, or b) seem pretty reasonable. But when you're on the inside of whatever activity is being regulated it's often the case that you can see how stupid/harmful regulation is.

    It's not unlike watching a news report on TV about something you're familiar with. You see how badly they butcher the subject, and then start wondering what they do to subjects you don't know about...

  • by cybrpnk2 ( 579066 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @12:11PM (#25721517) Homepage
    Get your PDF copy here while you still can [about.com] of the number one classic kids chemical experiment book that's been banned from libraries for decades.
  • by golodh ( 893453 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @12:19PM (#25721629)
    It's so mindbogglingly stupid. I can buy and store gallons of diesel and sacks with fertiliser full of ammonium nitrate at home, and kilos of arsenic (rat poison) but I can get into real trouble for possessing an erlenmeyer, 100 CC of methanol or 100 CC of nitric acid.

    It's quite possible to make explosives and poisons using only household chemicals. *sighs* All it takes is a few weeks of study on the Internet, a decent library, and some systematic note-taking.

    But you can't stop that sort of thing without prohibiting oft-used household chemicals. So it's not widely talked about.

    The general public hasn't got a clue about what is or isn't dangerous, and neither do most of the Authorities. Starting with the police.

    It's long since ceased to be about ensuring safety for neighbours and society at large, it's simply cover-your-backside regulation on part of otherwise clueless officials.

    It's Ok that something's done to prevent people from building complete plastique factories and amphetamine laboratories in their basements, but with a little common sense and some understanding of chemicals it's s completely doable to safeguard the neighbourhood.

    Register people with home laboratories if you must, but leave them alone. Like HAM radio amateurs.

  • by anandamide ( 86527 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @12:40PM (#25722005)

    When I was in High School, I set up a full lab, with the full array of chemicals like Sulfuric Acid, Hydrazine, Ethyl Acetoacetate etc etc. I learned a tremendous amount and made some interesting chemicals, but in hindsight I have serious reservations:

    1) Most people will have a very hard time coping with hazardous waste in a proper fashion, and the temptation to cut corners will be irresistible.
    2) If you look at the current state of chemical research, you'll see that the home hobbyist *HAS NO CHANCE* of keeping pace with a modern research lab. Palladium catalysts? Glove Boxes? Preparative Chromatography? NMR? Organometallic chemistry? Suzuki couplings? If you want to advance the state of the art and make meaningful contributions you need heavy tools nowadays. Yes, you might find something interesting, but most all of the easy chemicals have been made.
    3) The risk of fire, explosion and toxic contamination is very real. Someone trying to distill a liter of THF in their garage is asking for trouble, and if my neighbor was doing this I would be very concerned.
    If someone wants to spend $600,000 and lease space in an industrial park, more power to 'em, but it doesn't sound like a hobby at that point.
    I eventually packed everything up and took it to a 'hazardous material collection day' run by the local fire department. They were quite surprised, and it all went off to a HazMat landfill.

  • by xjimhb ( 234034 ) on Tuesday November 11, 2008 @12:41PM (#25722023) Homepage

    I must have been 7 or 8 when I got my first "ChemCraft" chemistry set for Christmas. By the time I was in Junior High, my best friend had a well-equipped chem lab in his basement, and I had one in an unused upstairs bedroom (my father even ran in gas for my bunsen burner). We used to make regular trips (driven by parents, of course) to a local science supply business to purchase glassware, chemicals, and such.

    Now we have stupid paranoid lawmakers passing stupid paranoid laws, and even stupider fogbound bureaucratic government agencies enforcing the laws in a totally ham-handed manner.


    Is there **ANY** way to get rid of all this idiotic nonsense?

    (I could suggest that we elect Libertarians to **ALL** public and lawmaking posisitons, but I have a feeling that's not going to happen ... anyone have a better idea?)

"You can have my Unix system when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers." -- Cal Keegan