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BSM Collections Encounters

History’s treasures or hidden hazards?
April 30, 2019
Civil defense medical kit items.

Civil defense medical kit items.


  • Stacy Baker
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The full, decaying bottle of 99% isopropyl alcohol and mercury thermometers were particularly worrisome.

The end of World War II brought a new order to the world’s power structure as the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) emerged from the global conflict as 20th century’s superpowers. Unfortunately, the previously allied countries soon developed a deepening distrust of one another, resulting in the rise of the Cold War in 1947. For citizens in the United States, fear of a nuclear attack by the Soviets prompted various civil-defense practices, including the use of fallout shelters, “duck and cover” drills, and the distribution of civil-defense medical supply kits. While our Museum collections certainly don’t include any fallout shelters or “duck and cover” movies, we do happen to have a civil-defense medical kit, which turned out to be a rather complicated accession. 

Wendy Strohmeyer, the Bradbury’s collection specialist, found this Cold War-era artifact while cataloguing items at the warehouse. One might assume this blast from the past would simply be catalogued and placed with other artifacts from that era, but these older medical kits contain quite a few chemicals and some of them are dangerous if not handled correctly. The full, decaying bottle of 99% isopropyl alcohol and mercury thermometers were particularly worrisome.  Fortunately, hazmat and industrial hygiene professionals are close at hand at Los Alamos and with a couple quick calls, all of Wendy’s concerns were addressed. 

Dina Siegel from the Lab’s Occupational Safety and Health division was able to answer questions about the thermometers (which were best left undisturbed in their plastic cases) and staff from Los Alamos County were quickly on the scene to address the questionable alcohol. Though 99% isopropyl alcohol is available at pretty much any drugstore and is generally safe to use, it can form explosive crystals if not stored and handled appropriately. Today, we still have most of the civil-defense kit, but the once full bottle is now a shiny, empty part of this historic artifact. 

For over 75 years, research at Los Alamos has involved dangerous materials and potentially hazardous activities. Few institutions in the world focus on safety with the same intensity as the Lab does and it’s good to know those same highly-trained safety professionals support work at the Museum with the same dedication given to other, more intricate operations.