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.