Performing the ‘rainbow’ flame test demo safely

Less than a month after the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board released its video warning against using methanol for flame test demonstrations, we have this:

A teacher’s chemistry experiment exploded during a demonstration at Beacon High School in Manhattan on Thursday, creating a fireball that burned two 10th graders, one severely, according to Fire Department and school officials. The incident happened about 9 a.m., as Anna Poole, a science teacher at the public school, gave a lesson on how electrons react to different chemicals and give off different colors, according to students and school officials.

Local news reports all say that it was a flame test demo and that the teacher was using methanol, but those stories either don’t attribute the information or use unnamed sources. I contacted the New York City Fire Department, Department of Education, and Special Commissioner of Investigation for the schools, but none of them has been willing to confirm any details of the incident.

But several years of tracking chemistry incidents means that when I hear about students injured in a fire in a high school science class, my first thought is that it was a methanol-based flame test experiment. There is a safer way to do flame tests, by soaking wood sticks in metal salt solutions (chlorides, NOT nitrates) and holding the sticks in a flame. The National Science Teachers Association has detailed instructions here (h/t to @Lewis_lab for the link). And the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety has instructions here (added 9/2014).

Local coverage of the incident:

Update: The New York Times had a Jan. 8 story that the fire department has cited the high school for eight code violations involving hazardous chemical storage and safety equipment.

For more discussion, also see Chemjobber: Another accident with the “rainbow flame” experiment, Placeholder for Beacon School incident, FDNY finds code violations

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. Safety training is critical for any chemistry teacher, for his or her own legal and physical protection, and, of course, for the safety of all students.
    It is expected that any qualifed chemistry teacher has completed specifc training in chemical and laboratory preparation and safety, including the ability to conduct hazard laboratory experiments and class demonstrations.
    But the reality is often quite different…