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:
- New York Times – Chemistry lab fire injures 2 at a Manhattan high school, School experiment that burned boy was focus of federal warning
- New York Post – Two high school kids burned in lab accident, Safety lapses eyed in Beacon School Chemistry Fire
- New York Daily News – Two Beacon School students injured when science experiment erupts in fireball, Beacon chemistry teacher faulted by safety expert after students burned in experiment
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