I wouldn’t necessarily call myself clumsy, but at times I wonder if I should. My recent trip to the central Philippine islands had its first disaster a mere 3 days into the trip. However, before I can get into the details of the saga, I need to quickly recap a few of the most painful experiences I have had while doing fieldwork. Formalin is one of the most painful substances to squirt into your eye—that I know of, anyway. Formalin is the fluid used by many researchers in the field to harden and preserve specimens. It comes in 37% solution, which is entirely too strong if you ask me. So what must be done is a simple dilution to 10% for preservation purposes. Formalin is a known carcinogen in the long term, and in the short term seriously dries out any tissue it comes into contact with, be it fingers or eyes. The danger in my work comes from the method in which specimens are preserved. We use syringes filled with Liquid F, as some people like to call it (mainly just me). Over the past five years I have managed to spray formalin into my eyes.
Yeah, it hurt like fire. Two of the three incidents occurred on the same two-week trip in the field. I happened to be with the one of our close friends and field assistants, Vicente Yngente, or Enteng the Terminator. His nickname comes from being recognized as one of the best hunters and wildlife specialist. The first incident occurred at night right after the Terminator had just entered the bathroom to shower off. Of course he was a little surprised when I busted down the door screaming in pain to get my eyes under the only water faucet in the pension house. Even though I knew he was embarrassed trying to hide behind the shower curtain, I think deep down he felt good about helping to make sure I would be able to see the next day. The second pain fest occurred three days later on the island of Semirara. This was one of the most painful experiences I have ever been through.
At the time, typhoon Mimi had hit the island complex where we were camping, and the wind and torrential rain had gotten very dangerous. The large syringe needle I was using had not been completely secured onto the syringe container. And while re-injecting a large monitor lizard with purified formalin (not diluted), the needle popped off and a large amount of formalin sprayed off the animal and into both of my eyes. My eyes instantly shut with pain and I fell to the ground yelling for help. Enteng and his son ran and picked me up by my arms. The three of us stumbled outside in the storm to a nearby well with a manual pumping system. There we stayed for close to 45 minutes while SOTT (Son of the Terminator), or Mark, helped hold my face under the water being pumped out of the ground by Enteng. For the next three days my vision remained slightly blurred. I looked as though I had barely survived a run-in with Manny Pacquiao, the national boxing hero and icon here in the Philippines. So for all of you future Liquid F junkies, or field biologists, remember to where protective eye gear when using formalin. Although your field companions might snicker at how silly you look, you will thank me when they save your little vision-makers from a syringe full of liquid lightening.