Denver student hit in chest with jet of flaming methanol

New incident, same message: Don’t pour alcohol anywhere near a possible flame.

At a press briefing yesterday, Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board investigators spoke about what they’ve learned so far regarding an incident at a Denver high school that sent four students to the hospital on Monday: The teacher lit a small pool of methanol to demonstrate its flame properties. When the flame didn’t rise as high as desired, he added more methanol from a 4 L container. The fire flashed back into the container, then emerged as a “jet fire” that traveled 15 ft to hit a student in the chest. That student was wearing a synthetic shirt and was seriously injured, others sitting nearby were also hurt.

CSB investigators also spoke about the Sept. 3 incident involving a “tornado” demo at a Reno, Nev., museum that sent nine people to the hospital. CSB had previously released details on that one, which involved pouring methanol from a 4 L bottle onto what was likely a smoldering cotton ball. The only new information yesterday was that the demo normally involves three tornadoes in varying fuel/additive combinations to show different flame colors. Also, back when the museum started using the demo, demonstrators had left the 4 L bottle in another area, taking out to the demo table only the amount needed. “Out of convenience, over time, the 4 L container itself had started being used in the demonstration,” CSB inspector Mark Wingard said.

“Instructors and teachers are just not aware of the flashback hazard of methanol,” CSB managing director Daniel Horowitz said. “Methanol has a flash point that’s pretty similar to gasoline. I think that if people knew that gallon containers of gasoline were being brought into classrooms right near flames, they would be horrified.”

Here are stories I was able to turn up from roughly the past year either definitely were or sound like methanol fires:
Sept. 9, 2013, in Frisco, Tex.: Two middle school students and a teacher were injured in a flash fire that arose from a flame test experiment involving methanol.
Oct. 3, 2013, in Douglas County, Ga.: One student suffered burns on 25% of her body when, while doing a flame test experiment, “a flammable liquid dispensed from the container unexpectedly fast and ignited, involving a 12th grade female student and catching her on fire.”
Nov. 12, 2013, in Avondale, Az.: Four students and a teacher were injured in a “flash explosion” that occurred during a flame test experiment.
Nov. 25, 2013, in Chicago, Ill.: A high school student suffered second-degree burns on her hands and four other students were hospitalized when the teacher was doing a flame test demo and “poured an unmeasured amount of methanol over said cobalt and match, causing an outward explosion.”
Jan. 2, 2014, in New York, NY: Two students were burned when their teacher added methanol to a flame test experiment that she thought had died out.

Plus Reno and Denver. That makes 29 people injured.

Please, if you do a demo that involves a flammable liquid and a flame, reconsider. Flame tests? You can skip the flammable liquid. Anything else? Think about whether the demo is necessary and whether something else might get the point across. If a flammable liquid is absolutely necessary, leave the stock bottle elsewhere and just take the minimum amount necessary to the demo table.

Here’s CSB’s video PSA. It features Calais Weber, who was burned over 50% of her body in 2006 from a fire that ignited when her teacher poured methanol onto a flame test flame.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. Time to stop selling schools MeOH in 4.00L(!!!) bottles????

  2. Hands on experience, awareness, good SOP, safety culture are the ultimate solution of these re-occurring incidents in High School chemistry labs. Qty. is not the issue here, and that 4L methanol can used safely in any lab by reducing volume either using a beaker or conical flask.

  3. It is not a question of volume, good SOPs or the nature of the experiment.

    Rather, these teachers are simply not qualified to be handling chemicals in any amount, let alone with children present. These are not accidents. This is blatant ignorance of the hazards and frankly the very science of what they are trying to do.

  4. I am not going to disagree with MikeP or Tom C., BUT at the same time there is a pretty good chance that if the methanol had never been put into a 4.0 L bottle, the ‘accident’ would have been at least minimized and perhaps even avoided.

  5. @Adrian–So do you think suppliers shouldn’t provide 4 L bottles, or is it more that people doing demonstrations should leave the stock bottle elsewhere and take only what they need to the demo table?

  6. Well, there are clearly a whole bunch of factors in play here that run the full gamut, I’m not denying any of that, however I think that supplying schools with smaller bottles only, would at least take one of the variables out of the equation. Would that be the ultimate answer? Perhaps not, but I’m not sure what ANY school would want with 4.0 L of methanol anyway.

    Am I right in saying that there is somewhat of a parallel here with the Sangji case, in as much as there was a open bottle/relatively large volume of solvent that exacerbated the situation? If that’s not right I apologize, but I seem to remember something like that from the reports.

  7. From a reader who wishes to remain anonymous:

    Basically, the issue is not methanol per se but liquids such as Class I flammables; I’ve suggested to our K-12 outreach folks, for passing on to their audiences, that the local school systems should simply curtail the use of methanol and other extremely flammable substances entirely unless performed by carefully-trained science specialists. I suggest that other chemical professionals with K-12 contacts pass on that warning—in practice, it’ll be more effective coming from personal contacts than from CSB or the Division of Chemical Education.

    The problem with inappropriate handling of flammables also occurs at colleges and universities, including the Research I university I work at. We had a fire that resulted from a student dumping alcohol on hot catalyst to cool it down. As one would expect, the fire flashed back to the bottle; he then lost control of the bottle and dropped it in the waste bin, which was full of Kimwipes and other combustibles. Thanks to the sprinkler system, the fire didn’t spread, but the sprinkler water did substantial building damage.

  8. I keep my 4 gal. jug in the safety cabinet. In the lab I have small bottles that I keep out of sight. I’ve done the meoh whoosh reactions a hundred times SAFEKY,


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