Helping chemists to assess the risks involved in carrying out reactions

Bretherick’s handbook of reactive chemical hazards 

Peter Urben (ed) 

Oxford, UK: Academic Press | 2006 | 2680pp (2 volumes) | ?230.00 (HB) | ISBN 0123725631 

Reviewed by Tim Salkield 

It is now over 30 years since I first met Leslie Bretherick when he worked for BP at Sunbury-on-Thames, UK. He proudly showed me the index cards on which he stored information on hazardous chemical reactions. It was painstaking work involving a lot of trawling of the chemical literature and filing of information gathered from colleagues and friends. The idea of producing the handbook came about when Bretherick was working in the chemical industry and a colleague was killed in an explosion. He vowed to devote the rest of his career to collating information that might save lives in the future. 

The result of Bretherick’s pioneering efforts in days when few people gave laboratory health and safety a high profile was his Handbook of reactive chemical hazards  published in 1975. This detailed, for the first time, the reactions that are actually or potentially hazardous. In 1988, he received the ACS Chemical Health and Safety Award for his contributions to chemical health and safety. 

Bretherick continued to edit his handbook through four editions, but from the fifth edition in 1995 the editing has been ably carried out by Peter Urben of Courtaulds Chemicals (Suisse), because of Bretherick’s deteriorating eyesight; he died in 2003. 

The latest 7th edition consists of two volumes. The first large volume lists the hazards of individual compounds, arranged perhaps strangely by empirical formula - the alphabetical compound and CAS Registry number indexes will probably prove to be the most common access points. A second smaller volume outlines the hazards shared by members of whole chemical classes. 

The Handbook  covers every chemical with documented information on reactive hazards; more than 5000 entries on single elements or compounds, and 5000 entries on the interactions between two or more compounds. It includes five years of new reports, new references to the primary literature, and amplification to existing entries. 

These volumes should be on the shelves of all chemical laboratories in industry and academia, to help in making good risk assessments based on published information.