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Chemistry is not a crime

Victor Deeb, a retired chemist with 50 years of experience, had his house in Marlborough, Mass. ransacked by authorities last November. His crime: conducting chemistry experiments in his basement with benign agents used to make polymers for sealants. 

Firefighters responded to an alert of smoke coming out of the second story of Deeb’s house. After putting out the fire, one firefighter searched for a circuit breaker to cut off electricity to the house.  Upon entering the basement, he found more than 1,500 vials, jars and bottles according to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

Instead of inquiring about the nature of and reason for the chemicals, the authorities immediately called in a hazardous materials team and confiscated Deeb’s laboratory equipment and chemicals.

While it certainly prudent to err on the side of caution, the overreaction by officials in response to this very legal scientific endeavor is saddening and illustrates the unfounded stigma of home chemistry experimentation.

“This is Mr. Deeb’s hobby. He’s still got bunches of ideas. I think Mr. Deeb has crossed a line somewhere. This is not what we would consider to be a customary home occupation,” said Pamela Wilderman, a Marlborough code enforcement officer. “There are regulations about how much you’re supposed to have, how it’s detained, how it’s disposed of.”

In other words, Wilderman couldn’t point to anything specific Deeb did wrong at the time, but assumed what he did was wrong based on insecurity and ignorance.

The problem is clear. Scientific equipment is not intentionally harmful. It is the actions of people who misuse scientific equipment for destructive purposes that necessitates regulation. Fortunately, such regulations are already in place. There is no need to deprive owners of scientific material entirely.

After all, if an individual disregards ethical and lawful standards regarding the care of such materials, it is unlikely that he or she would be concerned about laws limiting the possession of them.

Before passing laws restricting access to scientific products, legislators should consider the potential impact on research and design.

During an interview with Wired magazine, Bill Nye said, “People who want to make meth will find ways to do it that don’t require an Erlenmeyer flask. But raising a generation of people who are technically incompetent is a recipe for disaster.”

Humans possess the inherent liberty and desire to investigate the inner workings of nature. Restricting this freedom not only adversely affects discovery and research, but also undermines the philosophy of science.