Jason Williams is the Director of Chemical and Laboratory Safety. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Science and Spanish from Westminster College in Missouri, and a Master’s Degree in Environmental Science from Lincoln University.
Caelen McQuilkin: The first question I wanted to ask you is about your email signature. It says, “What you put down the drain might cause you a lot of pain.” I was curious about this phrase and what it means to you.
Jason Williams: So, I change them every now and then. I’ve had that one for the longest … people don’t know that much about hazardous waste, and I’ve been doing this job almost all my life, including when I was in college, so I know a lot about hazardous waste. And a lot of what I realized about students is that … Well, first of all, we have a policy here that we don’t pour anything down our [lab] drains, other than soap and water. That’s an Amherst College policy. And so I always tell people, don’t pour anything down the drain, because you never know what could happen. And also, people don’t know what they’re working with a lot of the time, how dangerous it might be. And even sometimes, there are things that are not hazardous per regulations, but they’re still quite harmful, that you shouldn’t pour down your drain. There can be consequences down the line. So really that’s what it is. I like to make it funny, but also related to my work.
CM: What are some examples of the substances that aren’t harmful by regulation but can still be dangerous?
JW: First of all, before I even give you some examples, almost everything that’s hazardous has a regulatory threshold. So technically, anything below those thresholds you could put in. So for example, lead has a 5 ppm threshold. Anything under 5 ppm is technically not toxic. So technically you could put 4.9 ppm down the drain. So that’s my problem, is like we still shouldn’t be putting 4.9 ppm lead down the drain. But there are lots of other chemicals out there that you shouldn’t put down the drain. A lot of times people put bleach on the drain, which, by the way, is hazardous. But because they do it at home, they think they can do it at work. But it’s actually hazardous. You shouldn’t put bleach down the drain. Another thing that you shouldn’t put down the drain, for example, is liquid nitrogen. The reason is because it’s so cold, it will break the drain … it will break the pipes. There are tons of chemicals out there that are technically not as hazardous. Three percent hydrogen peroxide, you shouldn’t pour down the drain because it’s technically an oxidizer. So you can buy it at the store, but you shouldn’t pour it down the drain. So there are lots of chemicals out there that you wouldn’t think are hazardous, but they are.
CM: How did you first become interested in chemical safety?
JW: When I was in college, I had just come to the U.S. I think I came a few days later than most people, because of some visa issues. And I remember trying to find a job, and all the jobs were taken. [Well,] most of the jobs were taken, I guess. I was walking around and I was like hey, ‘the science person has a job.’ And most people don’t want to try to get those jobs, because they think they aren’t smart enough, or they think they’re not going to know. I was like, ‘hey, this is the only job that’s left.’ So I went to go talk to the lab manager, ‘do you want somebody?’ She was like ‘yeah.’ And then eventually, it just clicked. I really liked it. And she took over more of the campus safety stuff, like what EHS [Environment, Health & Safety] does, and she left all the lab stuff to me, and all the waste stuff to me. And it clicked. I loved it. And then I got recruited by a hazardous waste company. And from there on … [working for the hazardous waste company] I used to go to tons of schools in the Midwest — all of the schools in the Midwest — to do what’s called lab packing, which is the way you segregate and pack waste per the government regulations, and bring it to the plant to get disposed of.
CM: What do you think made the job ‘click’ for you?
JW: You know, I’m a person that … I don’t mind having a lot of things going on, and I can do 14 things at the same time. And I think the thing with chemicals, when it comes to this job, is that it’s never just one thing that you need to think about. You need to think about interactions between chemicals. You need to think about the chemical itself, you need to think about, ‘Why is it blue, it’s normally white.’ You need to know the physical characteristics, you need to know chemical characteristics, you need to know chemical reactions. But you also need to know the regulations regarding it. Like I said earlier, you need to know hazardous thresholds, actual percentages and what that means.
There are tons of regulations for chemicals, there are tons and tons and tons and tons of regulations. We just saw what happened in Ohio with the train derailing, and that caused lots of problems because there are lots of regulations for how you can treat that stuff, and how you do all of the assessments and stuff like that. With hazardous waste, and with chemicals in general in my field … chemists mostly care about the chemical reaction, and how they get from Point A to Point B. I care about all of that, and more. How do you dispose of it? What if it hurts you? How much of it can you inhale? What do you need to wear to make sure you don’t inhale it? What do you need to wear to make sure it doesn’t get in your skin? So it’s literally all the different parts going on at the same time. That’s what I like about it, it’s just a lot going on at the same time, and you can put different things together. It’s kind of like being an investigator. I’m a chemical detective.
CM: It’s interesting to think that there’s this whole longer journey of a chemical that goes beyond its use in the experiment.
JW: There’s a term called ‘Cradle to Grave’ in this field. And it basically means that you are in charge of this chemical from the day it was born until it dies. In other words, you’re in charge of a chemical’s entire lifespan. And so where you get the chemical from matters. How it gets to campus matters. How much of it you get matters. Do you have everything in place to make sure that you can use a chemical? Do you have PPE? Do you have engineering controls? Did you tell everyone in your lab using this chemical [that it can] cause a reaction? How do you dispose of it? Which company do you use to dispose of it? What does it happen once you dispose of it? Does it get put into the environment? Does it go into the atmosphere? How does it get treated? All of the stuff. Does it go into a landfill? How do you do the documentation to make sure … it’s all of this stuff at once.
CM: Do you have any stories from your time working in chemical safety at Amherst that show something more about the work itself, or something that’s been interesting about it?
JW: One of the coolest things … we did [was] the move from Merrill, to the new Science Center in 2018. I came here right at the end of the move. And so there were a lot of hazardous chemicals left over in Merrill. And so I was pretty much in charge of getting all of that stuff out. It was really interesting to go in and see all the … sometimes decades of chemicals that were left behind. You can see not just how the regulations have changed over time since then, but also how have they been promulgated, how much the EPA and OSHA and all the regulatory companies have kind of promoted all these regulations over time, so that we all know what’s going on a little bit better. You could almost trace some of that stuff, you know? You’d find chemicals in some dodgy places, because it’s an old building. They have different types of engineering controls and stuff. Now, a lot more things are automated, you know, fume hoods and stuff. It was really cool to see … we’ve definitely gone to a much more sustainable campus in terms of chemical use, and a safer campus as well, because of the new science center. We found a lot of old chemicals there, we found a lot of stuff that we had to get rid of right away. We spent a lot of money getting rid of a lot of the stuff so that we could start afresh. So that was pretty cool … You [could] see the research that people used to do. For example, we have a program where — and most schools have done this — we move from mercury thermometers to alcohol thermometers, and you can see some departments had a lot of mercury thermometers. Now we don’t have them anymore. Little things like that, you can see all the old equipment they used to use, versus what they use now. It’s a really good juxtaposition to get the old and the new, and kind of see how the college is becoming cleaner and safer and more sustainable. And more modern, in terms of science for sure.
CM: Do you work with students in any components of your job?
JW: I work with students in several different ways. I work with both teaching labs and research labs. And so teaching labs wise, a lot of times I go in and give safety talks at the beginning of the semester. We have a video that they could show, but I think that a lot of professors like to have me in there because it’s kind of like if you watch the video on the airplane before it took off versus if somebody actually shows you where the exit is, it’s a little bit more practical. So I do that. And what I’m really getting at there, is several things. First of all, I realize I’m in a niche field of science. And I’m a Black person in a very niche field of science, and there are very few Black people in this field. And so for one, I really like students to be able to see and be like “huh, I guess you could do something other than being a doctor or a professor.” I think it’s nice to see a person who doesn’t look like the average person in the lab. I take that very seriously, so that’s another reason why I like to do it. But also because I can tell stories, I can give stories of different things that have happened … and why we shouldn’t do those things, so it becomes real. And I can also point to things, I can point to the waste container, and be like, ‘This is the container we pour stuff into,’ ‘These are the goggles we use’ … Lab coats don’t have buttons, they have snaps so they can rip off really easily. And I can show it. Stuff like that.
CM: As someone who’s not in STEM, it’s cool learning more about all the paths that STEM can take you down.
JW: Yeah, most people don't realize that. I mean, that’s how Stephanie [Capsuto, science research librarian at the college] and I get along quite a bit, because we’re both in science and alternative fields. We did this panel … we were just trying to show all the different people that are in STEM, all the different angles you can take, and all different types of people as well. It was cool to talk about how, I’m Black, I’m from a different background, I’m from a poor background. But you can still be a scientist. And not only a scientist, but … I know for sure that a lot of poor people, let’s say, like me, who grew up and made it, we are socialized to become doctors and professors, right? Because we don’t know that many people in all the other fields. Most people go to a doctor, most people have gone to school and seen teachers, and that’s what you want to do. But you don’t see safety people, you don’t see the chemical specialist person. And so you don’t realize that could be a cool branch of chemistry, or environmental science that you could do. I take that very seriously. And since I did this in college, I always think, these people could do that, because they are in college.
CM: What are some of the things you’re interested in outside of work?
JW: I am a massive, massive, massive soccer fan. I grew up in Jamaica, and a lot of Jamaicans are big sports fans. So soccer, and track and field. Go Usain Bolt, obviously. I’m a big Manchester United fan, they play in the premier league. Massive, Massive Man United Fan. I watch all the games, live or delayed. So on weekends, I watch hours of soccer. I’m really into food. I love to cook a lot. I went to an international school, so I learned from all the different people about different recipes, techniques, and stuff like that. I try to go to different restaurants, and I’m super into wine. I’ve become that person that most people don’t want to be around, wine-wise, trying to always dissect the notes, you know, and try wine from Georgia the country, and Moldova, and places that people don’t associate with wine.
CM: What are some of the dishes you like to cook?
JW: Being Jamaican, I like to cook a lot of Caribbean stuff, Jamaican stuff. But I [also] cook other stuff. Jamaican food, we do a lot of jerk chicken, and baked chicken, and like curried goat, and Jamaican oxtail and stuff … I also love Asian cuisine quite a bit. I love making poke bowls and sushi at home, and stuff like that. I do a lot of barbecuing as well. I used to live in Missouri, so Kansas City has the biggest barbecue scene in America — one of, like, five. So, I learned how to do barbecue and some smoking. I try to be as diverse as possible. I do Jamaican stuff naturally, but I like to go across the world and dip into different things here and there.