Self-proclaimed experimentalist Gert Meyers received a 24-month suspended sentence on 28 June for a number of offences concerning the possession of dangerous chemicals without a licence.
The 61-year-old chemical engineer pleaded guilty to possessing 700mg of explosives precursor sodium nitrate and breaching an existing criminal behaviour order banning him from buying or attempting to buy any chemicals regulated under the 1972 Poisons Act.
These charges followed an incident in April when over 100 homes were evacuated by police after the fire service and the army’s Explosives Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit were called to Meyers’ property in Bridlington in Yorkshire. The police obtained a warrant to inspect the address following reports of unusual activity from worried neighbours who had previously expressed concerns about Meyers’ chemical-related activities. The home experimentalist was already known to Humberside Police having been convicted six years earlier for a similar offence when, following an evacuation of 40 properties, the EOD had to perform a series of controlled explosions to handle the illegal store of hazardous substances. Meyers was subsequently sentenced to eight months in prison for selling hazardous chemicals without a licence.
At the hearing, Judge John Thackray acknowledged that Meyers did not intend to harm his neighbours but stated that he had ‘caused very serious distress’ through his actions. In addition to Meyers’ 24-month suspended sentence, he will also have to perform 100 days community service and receive two years of mental health treatment.
Meyers originally developed an interest in chemistry as a child, learning about different chemicals and reactions from encyclopaedias, but began experimenting in a shed at the bottom of his garden in 2010 to help his daughter with her GCSE science homework. This interest then led him to found a small online chemical distribution company, Oxford ChemServe, with its stated mission ‘to supply individuals and/or SMEs with fine chemicals, mainly but not exclusively for hobby use; chemical or pyrotechnical’. However, the company was investigated for supplying chemicals to a convicted criminal and, following Meyers’ 2017 conviction, was eventually shut down.
During the April raid, his unusual setup was found to contain a collection of regulated substances, requiring a special licence under the 1972 Poisons Act. The police also recovered 700mg of explosives precursor sodium nitrate which is used in the production of bombs, pyrotechnics and other explosives. When questioned, Meyers acknowledged that he was probably in breach of his criminal behaviour order but felt that it was an ‘injustice for life’. In court he insisted that he only used small quantities, so it was ‘virtually impossible’ to cause significant damage. He then explained to the judge that he was ‘very much an experimentalist’ but would not ‘make anything explosive or of that nature’.
Andrea Sella at University College London, who has run chemistry demonstration lectures for the public, is in favour of thoughtful home science but strongly disapproves of Meyers’ actions. ‘There are all kinds of issues [with this type of behaviour],’ he says. ‘You scare your neighbours and put [them] at risk. And you leave a kind of chemical trail behind you, a trail of contamination. How are you disposing of these things afterwards?’
Home science has historically been associated with the mad scientist stereotype – flashes, bangs and bad smells – but Sella argues that this is not a realistic portrayal of modern chemistry. ‘[It’s] a very 19th-century vision of chemistry,’ he says. ‘Chemistry is much more “micro” today. We’re looking at surfaces, dynamics, enthalpy changes etc. And I do think people should do home lab stuff, especially if they can do it with instruments – measurement is the thing that distinguishes science from play.’
This type of more focused scientific approach to hobby chemistry has become increasingly popular over the last 20 years and there are now more citizen science projects than ever before. Public-driven community research has offered new ways to engage people in science and can improve the public perception of frequently misunderstood disciplines such as chemistry. These projects are an opportunity for young people to develop practical and analytical skills, something that can inspire students to pursue a career in science.
Reflecting on Meyers’ dangerous makeshift setup, Sella believes that some individuals can take this seed of inspiration to the extreme. ‘For me, it’s all about moderation and Meyers just went too far,’ he says. ‘Regulation is the result of learning. [It’s] there because things go wrong. Yes, do home experimentation, [but don’t] put [yourself or] your neighbours at risk.’