Derek Lowe keeps a blog, that alone wouldn't be news worthy but his blog is the home of Things I Won't Work With, a fascinating look at chemicals so noxious, so volatile that even the names will make amateur chemists flinch.
Such things as:
Everyone knows hydrogen peroxide, HOOH. And if you know it, you also know that it's well-behaved in dilute solution, and progressively less so as it gets concentrated. The 30% solution will go to work immediately bleaching you out if you are so careless as to spill some on you, and the 70% solution, which I haven't seen in years, provides an occasion to break out the chain-mail gloves.
When we last checked in with the Klapötke lab at Munich, it was to highlight their accomplishments in the field of nitrotetrazole oxides. Never forget, the biggest accomplishment in such work is not blowing out the lab windows.
And a hard core it is! This stuff was first prepared in Germany in 1932 by Ruff and Menzel, who must have been likely lads indeed, because it's not like people didn't respect fluorine back then. No, elemental fluorine has commanded respect since well before anyone managed to isolate it, a process that took a good fifty years to work out in the 1800s. (The list of people who were blown up or poisoned while trying to do so is impressive). And that's at room temperature.
Has anyone here had to work with any of these?
I find one of the key differences between chemists and physicists in our labs is that while physicists are often surprised at the lax approach to health and safety chemists sometimes take (when the safety officer is not watching and we know that what we're doing is quite safe) they poo poo us when suggest there are chemicals we wouldn't want to handle ourselves. My own list of stuff I'd refuse to work with includes HF (an acid that can eat its way through glass, metal and many organics, that dissolves you from the inside out (it passes through the flesh to dissolve the bones first) and that boils at room temperature) and organo-Hg compounds (did you just prick your finger with that contaminated needle? well in the next few years you'll be slowly going mad as a hatter (quite literally - the idiom arises from mercury exposure in the hatter community), initially aware of what's happening but with no way out).
There's other stuff I use regularly that I have great respect for and take special care over (I define special care as more than I would apply for a typical conc. acid), particularly aqua regia (a mix of HNO3 and HCl used to dissolve many metals, particularly gold - we use it for cleaning but it can also be used to protect your nobel medal from the nazis [npr.org]) and piranha solution (a mix of H2SO4 and H2O2 mostly used for cleaning - particularly the removal of organic residues - this is what I'd use if I ever wanted to dispose of a body in a safe and efficient manner).
And then there's a whole bunch of stuff that isn't as spectacularly dangerous but if you breath in enough of it will make you infertile (pyridine, I'm looking at you...), hurts your throat (NH4), is lachrymatory and a whole bunch of other stuff.
Came here to say the same thing about organomercury compounds. Famous case of the death of a chemistry from this stuff:
I'd never work with any such chemical...my kids need a dad.
Probably would not be first to volunteer to work with Ebola patients in West Africa, either.
But, the VAST majority of chemicals are relatively safe to work with, provided adequate measures are taken.
My worst experience was using a base bath to clean glassware. The base bath was highly concentrated sodium hydroxide (lye / drano to most folks) and the neoprene gloves I was using had a hole in them. I didn't notice the hole until I noticed the skin on one of my fingers itching pretty badly. I took the gloves off to find that my middle finger was already in the process of dissolving. Nice. Lots of water and some careful attention and I'm scar-free today, but that stuff still scares me a little. It dissolves fat very well, and the oils on that finger were long gone by the time I caught it. My skin felt like a 90-year-old man's for over a week.
I'm never without my goggles and always checking my gloves these days.
Heh heh... gloves. You need to get you some chloroacetone. What no-one tells you is it passes right through them and hurts like a sonovabitch. They also don't tell you it was used in WW1 as a chemical agent. But that's university for ya! Figure it out yourself, you're the student.
Wow, I hadn't realized organo-mercury compounds were so much more dangerous than elemental mercury. Good to know. A mere pinprick worth would seem unlikely to increase the levels of actual mercury more than a single serving of fish (particularly a top predator like tuna or shark).
And I'm not certain if the same mechanism would work for humans, but female dolphins actually have a way of ridding themselves of dangerously high mercury concentrations: They get pregnant. Between in-utero transfer and the concentration of mercury in their fat-rich milk they transfer virtually their entire mercury load to their first calf, who rarely survives the process. Subsequent calves get a low enough dosage that they can survive to repeat the process.
You know, now that I think about it, such bio-accumulation would suggest that all modern cetaceans, particularly males, are probably "mad as a hatter". Makes you wonder what they'd be like in full command of their faculties.