Experts: Science class can dazzle with less danger
DENVER — A dazzling show of fire and color can make science come alive for young students, but it can also inflict serious and painful injuries, as flash fires in Nevada and Colorado showed this month.
Educators and investigators say some teachers lack the training required by law and don’t know about standard safety measures that can dramatically lower the inherent dangers of hands-on experiments — experiments they say are vital to science education.
“You’ve got to have it hands-on, but you have to make it a safer experience through that training,” said Ken Roy, a safety consultant for the National Science Teachers Association and a longtime teacher.
Four students were injured, one seriously, when a teacher was pouring methanol onto a table top and igniting it during a chemistry class demonstration Monday at Denver’s Science, Math and Arts Academy, a charter high school. A 4-foot jet of flame erupted out of the methanol bottle and burned one of the students, investigators said.
School officials said the student’s parents asked them not to release any information about his condition.
On Sept. 3, 13 people, mostly children, were burned by a methanol-fueled flash fire during a science demonstration at the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum in Reno.
Both incidents are under investigation.
Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said the board has not been able to find any national standards for teacher training and procedures.
“As long as that’s the case, other schools may fall in to the same trap,” he said.
Schools and museums are not required to report such incidents, so no one knows for sure how often they happen.
Jim Kaufman, president of the nonprofit Laboratory Safety Institute, estimates that about five methanol-related accidents occur in high school labs every year.
The Chemical Safety Board, which investigates chemical accidents, said it knows of at least 11 methanol-related fires in science demonstrations since 2000, and more are coming to light amid the news of the Reno and Denver fires.
The Denver teacher wanted the table top fire to be bigger, so he was pouring more methanol from a gallon-size jug when the chemical inside the container caught fire, said Mark Wingard, a Chemical Safety Board investigator. The heat expanded the methanol inside the jug, and it erupted in a stream out of the narrow opening, said Dan Tillema, another board investigator.
The teacher had minor injuries and declined medical treatment, officials said.
Methanol, a form of alcohol, is often used as a fuel source for a popular classroom demonstration that shows how different chemicals emit different colors when they burn. But it emits flammable vapor at temperatures as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit, experts say, making it dangerous.
Safer alternatives to methanol are available, Roy said, but methanol is commonly used because it’s convenient and because many teachers learned the experiment that way.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires school districts to train and supervise teachers who handle hazardous chemicals like methanol, Roy said, but many schools don’t have training and no one is keeping track.
Roy said that in lab accidents he has looked into over the past few years, training has been rare.
“In almost every case, I find that the teachers have not been trained as required by law,” he said.
Safety guidelines and instructional videos are available online. A safety data sheet on the website of the Methanol Institute, an industry group, recommends the use of safety goggles, gloves and ventilation for using the chemical.
Neither the teacher nor the students were wearing goggles or other gear in the Denver incident, and although the school laboratory had three ventilation hoods, none was being used at the time of the fire, Wingard said.
Investigators have also said the teacher did not have any special training in handling methanol.
Lindsay Neil, a spokeswoman for the Science, Math and Arts Academy, said Thursday she could not comment because of the ongoing investigations.
Roy said many teachers do handle hazardous chemicals safely. The Science Teachers Association offers training and online help and recommends that teachers learn and follow the safety requirements for any chemicals they use.
Like highways, school labs can never be made completely safe but can be made safer with the right precautions, Roy said.
“When those things are in place, the chance drops dramatically for having a safety incident. But if you ignore them, well of course, things are going to happen,” he said.