How do you keep track of tons (literally) of potentially toxic stuff? 

Monitor staff
Published: 11/21/2016 6:56:06 PM

Keeping track of inventory is the worst part of any business. Now imagine that the inventory might be explosive, flammable, radioactive or corrosive – and is surrounded by college students.

This is the situation at UNH, which like all research universities has hundreds of people handling toxic materials of all sorts, both for classes and for research projects. Happily, the school has developed a system for keeping track of it all that is so good that it has been sold to a couple of biotech firms as well as two dozen other schools and pays for itself.

The system, known as CEMS – for chemical environmental management system – was born from turmoil. It was created after the EPA found violations of the school’s chemical inventory and safety practices in 1997. UNH paid a fine of $49,000 but, as part of the settlement, also agreed to set up an information system to keep track of the use and storage of chemicals, taking advantage of the newish technology still known as the World Wide Web.

The interface and user experience – developed to keep tabs on which maybe nasty stuff is stored where – has proven useful for everything from keeping track of employee training to helping researchers share materials (not just chemicals but equipment, even fume hoods) so they don’t have to buy, or throw out, as much. There are now 9,048 active accounts on CEMS, just at UNH.

“Over time, based on needs of UNH Environmental Health and Safety department, and of other schools, CEMS has just kind of grown and grown, feature-wise,” said Phil Collins, lead developer for the system.

One capability that had nothing to do with its origins – keeping track of which people have received, or need to receive, which type of training – has blossomed. “Its biggest use is the training system, not chemical inventory any more,” Collins said.

As another example of a use nobody dreamed about originally, Collins said the team approached the Durham Fire Department to see what information first responders need to know in advance when tackling a fire in a research lab.

“They said we care about (things like) pounds of oxidizers and how much Class 3, flammable materials are in the room. Are there water reactants there – should we use water to put out the fire?” Collins said. CEMS created a way for this information to be quickly available via download, so it can be referenced in the fire truck on the way to the scene even if there’s no internet connection.

Commercial chemical-tracking systems exist but Collins said they aren’t oriented for universities, where PI’s (“principal investigators,” a common term for the scientist leading a research project) balk at the type of top-down control that is common in businesses.

“What was unique is how we catered to research – the de-centralized approach. Researchers like to shop around, they don’t want to go to one place to get (material), they don’t need some sort of procurement system,” he said. CEMS takes advantage of group purchasing discounts and shippers know authorized locations to bring different material on campus (if you’re delivering, say, cocaine for a research project, you don’t just leave the box sitting by the front door).

“Chemistry has their own delivery area because they have so much inventory. They are trained at that receiving station to examine the contents and enter into UNH CEMS that substance, so as soon as it’s on campus we know what it is and where it is and how much,” Collins said.

UNH started licensing the system to other schools in 2003, and recently has sold licenses to two biotech firms, Collins said.

The two UNH organizations that oversee CEMS – the Research Computing Center and the Office of Environmental Health and Safety – recently received an Innovator of the Year award from the school. The UNH statement said CEMS has generated “more than $1 million in cumulative royalties.”

Collins started CEMS as an undergraduate back in 1999 when the system was still being developed. His story reflects the serendipity that can occur in college.

“I saw a job flyer on the door for a research assistant. It wasn’t just the money. I saw it as an opportunity to get all this great experience,” he said.

Collins said he’s happy to still be with the project and happy to see how it has thrived.

“CEMS is a tool that helps people get their job done. That’s really why people use it,” he said.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek)

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David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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