Fire from rainbow demo injures five students in Virginia

Credit: Shutterstock

Credit: Shutterstock

On Friday, Oct. 30, five students and a teacher were burned in an incident involving the rainbow flame test demonstration at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Va. From a student’s description of the incident given to Fox 5 DC:

[The teacher] was demonstrating the experiment … with the different elements causing the fire to change color, and as the fire was dying down she added more alcohol

Details are still sketchy, but as we’ve seen many times before, most likely what happened was that the methanol supply or its vapor caught fire, flashed back into the stock container, and blew out toward the students.

Two of the Woodson students were airlifted to area hospitals; one was reported to be in critical condition on Friday. On Sunday, both were in fair condition, according to a MedStar Washington Hospital Center spokesperson. One of the students, Sonya Garvis, has serious burns to her arm and will need surgery in the coming week, NBC Washington reported. The other three students were taken to a hospital, treated, and released on Friday. The teacher was treated at the school.

As long-time blog readers know, the American Chemical Society and U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board have both warned against using flammable solvents, such as methanol, with this demonstration. A safer alternative is to soak wooden sticks in salt solutions and then burn the sticks in a flame. The National Fire Protection Association last year updated its standard for laboratories using chemicals to include requirements for demonstrations.

Monday, Nov. 2, afternoon update:
One of the two hospitalized students was discharged. The Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent has ordered these actions:

  • Immediate suspension of the use of any and all open flames in all FCPS science classroom until further notice
  • Conduct a thorough review of FCPS science curriculum
  • Review current guidance to FCPS science teachers to ensure all concepts are taught in the safest possible manner and setting
  • Require science safety updates for all FCPS high school science teachers to commence immediately, and all FCPS science teachers will be required to complete by the end of the semester

Local media coverage of the Woodson fire:

Elsewhere:

CSB’s video PSA, featuring Calais Weber, who suffered burns 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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4 Comments

  1. These reoccurring incidents are fully preventable via knowing the chemical properties of chemicals used in demonstration and hazards associated to the chemicals. Numerous rainbow incidents have been reported and may be many are unreported. I feel something is missing between the resources available already and the end users. There is no need of using one gallon of methanol/ethanol container for pouring the solvent to the hot surface. In this case, I am sure the instructor was fully aware with previous rainbow incidents, if not administration must organize annual safety training for the teachers/instructors. Chemistry is fun! If done safely.

  2. A stupid or absent-minded chemist. The first sentence says it all:
    “… and as the fire was dying down she added more alcohol.”

    My version of this demo is at
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ShAFQ4ZX7A
    Note my statement at 50 seconds.

    Only 1-2 mL of methanol is used per dish.

  3. A little common sense goes a long way.
    There are several simple precautions that should be taken to prevent these types of injuries:

    Never add additional alcohol to burning material during ANY lab demonstration.
    Make sure that all source containers are closed and placed at a safe distance from the demonstration before igniting the poured fuel.
    Do these types of flame test demonstrations in open containers such as a series of petri dishes, not directly on the lab counter which provide no containment for the burning material.
    Use ethanol rather than methanol for the “flame test” demonstration. It’s far less volatile, and since it burns at a higher temperature, it will provide a more impressive display of color when heating the metal salts.
    Or avoid the use of flammable, volatile liquids altogether by simply spraying a mist of the aqueous salt directly into the burner flame. It will give a brief intense burst of color before the metal salt solution vaporizes into the air.

  4. It is unfortunate that our beloved science has been equated with danger in the public eye (again), and has done so in such a spectacular display of lack of knowledge of the materials used. PLEASE use common sense and safe operational procedures when doing demonstrations.