Remember your high school chemistry lab with row after row of Bunsen burners surrounded by shelves filled with all sorts of toxic chemicals?
Keeping an inventory of these hazardous materials is a cumbersome chore that requires chemistry teachers constantly to fill out and update official reports to numerous regulatory agencies.
Managing a high school chemistry lab is time-consuming enough, so imagine the challenge facing a large research institution like Stanford, with approximately 2,000 laboratories located in more than 100 buildings.
"We are responsible for tracking about 200,000 individual containers of hazardous material on campus," says Lawrence M. Gibbs, associate vice provost in charge of the Department of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS).
Gibbs' department is required by law to report the contents of each container to 20 federal, state and local agencies - from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Palo Alto Fire Department.
The task became so overwhelming that, by the mid-1990s, Gibbs and his colleagues began looking for a more efficient way to track chemical inventories.
"We just didn't have a good system in place," he recalls, "so we tried to find a commercial solution to managing all the chemicals on campus via the web."
According to Gibbs, none of the commercially available programs was up to the task, so EHS began developing its own software. The result was the Stanford Chemical Information Management System (SCIMS) launched in June 1999.
"It took us two years to document the institutional requirements and develop SCIMS," he notes, "but now we have a system that's available in every building where hazardous chemicals are stored."
Gibbs will explain how SCIMS operates at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in San Diego on April 4. He is one of several speakers invited to an ACS symposium titled "Winning Approaches to Chemical Safety on the Web."