Agency urges science demo changes after Reno fire
LAS VEGAS — A federal agency on Monday urged museums and schools to stop using methanol and other flammable chemicals in their fire-based science demonstrations in light of a flash fire that injured 13 people, most of them children, at a Reno museum earlier this month.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s recommendation Monday cited the Sept. 3 blaze at the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum, and it came on the same day an experiment involving methanol burned four students in a Denver high school chemistry lab.
School officials said a teacher was using methanol in a demonstration and that no students were handling the materials. Three students were treated and released at the hospital, and a fourth suffered serious injuries. Two inspectors with the board were on their way to the Denver school, spokeswoman Hillary Cohen said.
The Reno accident, which happened when an employee tried to create a green-flamed “fire tornado,” was one of a string of recent incidents tied to teachers’ attempts to mix methanol with other chemicals to create colorful flames.
“The point is to get kids excited about science,” said Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the Chemical Safety Board. “And the worst way to do that is to have an accident.”
Nevada investigators said the three- to five-second blaze at the museum erupted after the presenter grabbed a 1-gallon jug of alcohol and poured it on a cotton ball that had been dusted with boric acid and partially ignited. The alcohol is supposed to be applied before the boric acid, then ignited and spun around on a Lazy Susan to create a miniature, green-flamed tornado.
“It was a simple oversight by the presenter,” Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said.
Nine people were taken to the hospital, including one child who stayed overnight. The museum has suspended the demonstration and placed the employee on leave. Fire officials have scheduled a safety consultation with personnel this week to review safety risks at the museum, Hernandez said.
The accident happened just months after the board posted a safety video on YouTube warning about the dangers of “rainbow experiments.” The video told the story of Calais Weber, who suffered severe burns on nearly half her body when a 2006 demonstration at her Ohio boarding school exploded.
She and another victim settled a lawsuit with the school for nearly $19 million.
Because methanol can ignite in the air at a relatively low temperature, using it in classrooms or labs with ignition sources “creates an unacceptable risk of flash fire,” especially when large containers of flammable substances are nearby, the board said.
Representatives from the methanol industry concur.
“Like gasoline, methanol is a toxic and flammable chemical and should only be handled in appropriate settings, and that would certainly not include museums and classrooms,” said Greg Dolan, CEO of the Methanol Institute.
Teachers can use other methods for showing the color-change phenomenon, such as using wooden sticks soaked in chemical salts. In Denver, school officials were working to determine the purpose of the demonstration using methanol, saying the teacher had conducted it several times over the previous couple of days.
Methanol is popular in chemistry classes because “it’s an interesting fire. It burns very quickly,” according to Jeff Orlinsky, chair of the science department at Warren High School in Downey, California.
But he said his school hasn’t used it in probably 15 years amid safety concerns.
“It was done as an ‘ooh, aah’ demonstration,” he said. “But there are other ways to get students’ attention that are safer.”