Picric Acid

The dangers of picric acid may be old news now, as a flurry of various museum staff members discovered picric acid in their collections two years ago, but the warning is worth repeating. Especially since our outreach efforts are focusing more and more on disaster preparedness, we have to be mindful of the potential disasters that collections themselves may harbor.

picricAcidPicric acid is a pale yellow, odorless crystal that is normally packaged as a solution with 10%+ water. The chemical was once commonly included in first aid kits and other medical supplies, especially around the turn of the 20th century through about 1950. [The example here on the left is part of the online “Museum of Menstruation’s” collection.] The substance becomes hazardous over time as the water evaporates and dry, yellowish crystalline particles remain. The dry acid crystals are an especially volatile chemical, which combusts easily from changes in temperature or friction. The crystals react to metals and alkaline materials, such as plaster or concrete, to form explosive picrate salts, becoming even more dangerous.

Several of the 2011 incidents were in Colorado (notably the PioneerMuseum) and another in Oklahoma.  When museum staff members identified collection items laced with picric acid (guaze pads in some cases) and called authorities, bomb squads came to the institutions. Officials evacuated visitors and staff and then detonated the materials.

Have North Carolina collections stewards verified that 50-100+-year-old medical supplies are free from this danger? Do you know of any institutions in our state where staff has discovered and disposed of this hazardous chemical?

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About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on October 8, 2013, in collections care, collections management, disaster preparedness, storage and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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