Glutaraldehyde: a cautionary tale (LONG!)

From: Katharine Thayer ^lt;[email protected]>
Date: 03/30/04-07:07:56 AM Z
Message-id: <>

T. E. Andersen wrote:
> Hi all,
> Just a word of caution.
> As a professional microscopist, I use glutaraldehyde on a regular basis.
> It's odor is different, but every bit as pungent as formalin, and all
> the same precautions should be taken.
> I strongly suspect that the lack of information on some of the health
> issues mentioned in the datasheet in the link below is due to the
> limited use of this chemical (at least compared with formalin).

Hello Folks,

I've gone back and forth whether I should tell you this story, because I
can't know for sure whether what happened was related to glutaraldehyde.
Maybe I have a brain tumor and the first symptoms just occurred by
coincidence right after I used glutaraldehyde for the first time. Maybe
it was sudden-onset Alzheimer's disease. (That was a joke; I'm pretty
sure there isn't such a thing.) Time will tell, no doubt. But just the
same, just in case, I have decided to tell you what happened:

I spent some time Sunday afternoon sizing 16 quarter-sheets of paper
with glutaraldehyde in gelatin. Since I almost never size paper, and
even when I do size paper I don't harden the size, for reasons I'll
explain in another post that's still in editing, it's inexplicable to me
now why I was doing this, and I wish to goodness I could remember why it
was that I thought I wanted to do it in the first place. I can't think
of any good reason, although I'm sure I must have had one at the time or
I wouldn't have done it.

At any rate, I sized all these papers. I did it outside, so there would
be plenty of ventilation, but then I hung them up on a line in my
kitchen and left them there overnight. In the morning I woke up dizzy
and disoriented and sick to my stomach, with a screaming
headache and without the possession of vital pieces of information like
my name and what year it is, although much else in my memory banks was
 intact. (I could mentally tick off the questions that emergency
people ask to check mental status, which I learned years ago as a
psychology student; what's interesting is that while I didn't know my
own name, or the year, I did know the name of the town where I live and
I hadn't forgotten the name of the president of the United States,

 I was obviously quite concerned about what was happening to me and why,
and then I thought of the glutaraldehyde. I took down the papers from
the line and put them out in the studio; I opened up all the windows,
and I sat outside in the fresh air for most of the morning. I read
through the 7-page sheaf of cautions that came with the glutaraldehyde,
but there's nothing in there about central nervous system effects; I
don't know whether that means they have looked for central nervous
system effects and not found any, in which case the brain tumor
explanation may be more likely, or whether it means they just don't have
any information one way or another, in case case here's some data for
them. At any rate, after an hour or two of fresh air I was restored to
familiarity with my name and my place in time, my dizziness went away,
and I have been functioning fairly normally ever since, except for not
being able to remember why I was sizing the paper or hardening the size
in the first place.

I've never used formaldehyde in gum printing, but I did spend a year
once as an intern on the neurology service of a university medical
center, and encountered formaldehyde there every week when attending
what they called "brain cuttings" in which we looked at slabs of brain
tissue cut from the brains of recently diseased persons, and tried to
diagnose what had been wrong with them before they died. (I remember
getting brownie points for correctly diagnosing a case of Korsakoff's
syndrome once.) The point of telling this story is to say that the
formaldehyde, which was very strong in the room during these sessions,
didn't have any such effect on me as I'm describing here. The first
time, it did make me a little sick to my stomach, but I think that was a
combination of the smell and the idea of what we were looking at. I
remember that I felt so queasy that I decided after the session that I
might feel better if I went and got some lunch. So I went to the
cafeteria, and what were they serving? Meat loaf! True story. It looked
exactly like the grey slabs of brain I'd just been looking at, and I
decided lunch wasn't such a great idea after all. But I digress.

 For some reason my central nervous system may be especially susceptible
to certain chemicals. For example, there's a type of drug I can't take
for my heart arrythmia because I am one of the slightly less than 2% of
people for whom these drugs have significant negative central nervous
system effects. So maybe even if it was glutaraldehyde that did this to
me, it's not something that would be likely to happen to anyone else.

And like I say, it may turn out that something else caused it, like a
brain tumor or dementia that is just starting to make itself known. But
just the same, it seems suspicious to me that it appeared just at that
time, that there was queasiness and a funny taste in my mouth
associated with it as well as cognitive effects, and that it resolved
itself with the application of fresh air. I'm never using
glutaraldehyde again, and I thought it might be useful for you all to
have this story as a piece of data to consider when you ask yourself if
you need to use this particular chemical. IF the glutaraldehyde did this
to me, then it's really scary stuff.

The percentage of glutaraldehyde to gelatin solution I used was .04%,
which doesn't seem like much but is stronger than what Chris was using
(perhaps someone should check my calculations: 6 ml of 2.5% contains .15
(grams? ml?) of glutaraldehyde, which in a liter of gelatin solution
makes .015%, right?)

Besides sleeping in the same house where the papers were drying, I also
spent some time, maybe as much as 20 minutes, standing over an open
ampule of 8% glutaraldehyde (which turned out to be 10 ml rather than 2
ml as they were supposed to be and as it said clearly on the package)
because the neck was so small that the stuff would not pour out but had
to be coaxed out drop by drop by repeatedly breaking the surface tension
that held the liquid captive in the ampule. So I may have breathed quite
a lot of it, although I couldn't actually smell anything; I took the
lack of smell as an indication that I was safe, although I did have an
odd unpleasant taste in my mouth. I don't have a fume hood, and while I
did have a window and door open, it may not have been enough
ventilation. But it seems odd, if that's what did it, that the effect
didn't appear until the next morning.

The ironic thing is that I have been accused more than once on this list
of being ridiculously overcautious about chemical safety. As a person
who spent several months in my younger days up to my elbows in benzene,
before anyone knew anything about how dangerous benzene is, I'm
probably living on borrowed time as it is. But at the same time, perhaps
I've earned the right to echo the cautions already voiced here: be
careful with this stuff! I'm still not convinced that there is any
benefit to using it for our purposes that outweighs the danger, whether
that danger is "only" the respiratory effects already well documented or
whether it's something as frightening as what happened to me. My 25
cents worth,
Katharine Thayer
Received on Tue Mar 30 15:03:52 2004

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : 04/01/04-02:02:06 PM Z CST