Home chemistry under assault

Chemistry kits shouldn't be a crime, but increasingly they are.

Home science experimentation — model rockets, chemistry sets and playing with explosives — are a gateway drug to serious nerddom, having inspired the likes of Internet co-inventor Vint Cerf and Intel founder Gordon Moore. But the hobby is under assault from government agencies that are terrified of terrorists, from anti-fireworks campaigns, and from the war on (some) drugs. The result is that hobbyists and those who supply them are getting investigated, raided and even jailed.

Steve Silberman's long investigative piece in this month's Wired tackles the subject with admirable thoroughness and fairness, and left me feeling genuinely alarmed. Science and innovation are things that you start doing early on (Nikola Tesla invented his turbine design when he was five — a design still in use at Niagara Falls and other power-generation stations), and penalizing those who help kids do science is a surefire way to trash the nation's competitiveness.

The push to restrict access to chemicals by those who have no academic or scientific credentials gained momentum in the mid-'90s following the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. In the years since 9/11, the Defense Department, FBI, and other government agencies have strategized ways of tracking even small purchases of potentially dangerous chemicals. "The fact that there are amateurs and retired professors out there who need access to these chemicals is a valid problem," acknowledges Rice University chemistry professor James Tour, who consulted with the Pentagon and the Justice Department, "but there aren't many of those guys weighed against the possible dangers."

A provision in the 2002 Homeland Security Act mandated background checks and licensing requirements for model-rocket enthusiasts on the grounds that ammonium perchlorate fuel is an explosive; the Justice Department argued that terrorists could deploy model rockets to shoot down commercial airliners. A bill pending in both houses of Congress would empower the Department of Homeland Security to regulate sales of ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer that Timothy McVeigh used to make the Oklahoma City bomb. "We finally have bipartisan support and encouragement from the chemical industry on this, which is important, because we've seen what can happen when these materials fall into the wrong hands," says US representative Curt Weldon (R-Pennsylvania), who is sponsoring the House bill. "As we move forward, we're going to be taking a very close look at other chemicals that should be regulated."

In the meantime, more than 30 states have passed laws to restrict sales of chemicals and lab equipment associated with meth production, which has resulted in a decline in domestic meth labs, but makes things daunting for an amateur chemist shopping for supplies. It is illegal in Texas, for example, to buy such basic labware as Erlenmeyer flasks or three-necked beakers without first registering with the state's Department of Public Safety to declare that they will not be used to make drugs. Among the chemicals the Portland, Oregon, police department lists online as "commonly associated with meth labs" are such scientifically useful compounds as liquid iodine, isopropyl alcohol, sulfuric acid, and hydrogen peroxide, along with chemistry glassware and pH strips. Similar lists appear on hundreds of Web sites.


(image thumbnail taken from David Clugston illustration)