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Keeping tabs on the world’s dangerous chemicals

In the chemistry labs of the developing world, it's not uncommon to find containers, forgotten on shelves, with only vague clues to their origins. The label, if there is one, is rubbed away.

Left alone for years, some chemicals can quietly break down into explosive elixirs, and what was once an innocent experiment by a well-meaning scientist becomes a very real, unsecured threat. Should such chemicals fall into malicious hands, the consequences could be widespread and deadly.

In 2007, Sandia chemical engineer Nancy Jackson helped the U.S. Department of State create the Chemical Security Engagement Program to help scientists around the world, particularly in developing countries, keep chemical use safe and secure. Jackson and her team develop and implement programs for laboratories worldwide to help manage their chemical inventories and devote time to training future laboratory trainers.

As the 2011 president of the American Chemical Society and manager of Sandia's International Chemical Threat Reduction program, Jackson has traveled and worked closely with scientists in some of the world's most volatile regions to make their laboratories more safe and secure. For her extensive work engaging scientists around the world, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has honored Jackson with the 2013 Science Diplomacy Award, which will be presented on Friday, Feb. 15, at the AAAS annual meeting in Boston.

"Nancy has been a true pioneer in chemical threat reduction work globally. Even though the chemical threat has not received all the attention that the biological threat has, the ubiquity of dangerous chemicals and the means to misuse them makes the danger of chemical terrorism and proliferation just as clear and present as the biological threat," said Ren Salerno, senior manager of Sandia's International Cooperative Threat Reduction program. "The recent crisis in Syria emphasizes this reality. The work of Nancy and her department is unquestionably a critical Sandia contribution to U.S. and international security."

The program's goal is identifying chemicals that can cause catastrophe in the wrong hands, and making sure they stay out of those hands. One challenge facing Jackson and her team is that many laboratory chemicals are dual use, with both helpful and destructive applications. Take potassium cyanide. While cyanide is used to manufacture plastics, textiles and paper, develop photographs and remove gold from its ore, when paired with an acid, cyanide can easily be turned into a deadly gas.

"Chemicals are not like nuclear or biological threat materials. They are everywhere," said Jackson. "You can't lock them up; you can't put them in Biosecurity Level 4 labs. Instead of locking them up, you have to manage them."

Jackson and her team work with universities, small businesses and research institutions to build extensive chemical inventories so organizations can know and manage what they have. With such inventories, chemicals are less likely to go missing, and sharing resources between scientists is easier, driving down costs and wait times associated with ordering new products.

The program regularly engages scientists in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where Jackson says chemists and chemical engineers understand the importance of keeping chemicals guarded, but often don't have the resources or training to implement security systems.

Jackson and her team have developed five-day, train-the-trainer programs for chemists and chemical engineers that teach the importance of personal protective equipment, maintaining working chemical hoods, chemical management and physical security. The goal is to educate professors and researchers so that program graduates will be aware of safety and security measures, thus sustaining the program for future graduates.

Despite the important national security mission of Jackson's work, she said one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is building relationships, particularly with the growing population of female chemists and chemical engineers in the developing world. "It's a delight," Jackson said. "I love meeting these very impressive people and getting to know them, and I try to help their careers however I can. It has been a very rewarding career and I am honored to be recognized for my work."

Provided by Sandia National Laboratories