Georgia student burned in “rainbow demo” alcohol fire to receive $1.5 million
May11

Georgia student burned in “rainbow demo” alcohol fire to receive $1.5 million

A woman who was burned in a 2013 fire started when a high school teacher added methanol to an already-burning rainbow flame test demonstration will receive $1.5 million as part of a legal settlement, says the Daily Report, a news organization that covers Georgia courts and law. From the story: According to the plaintiff’s lawyers and the complaint in the case, Chapel Hill [High School] was hosting an Advanced Placement open house on the evening of Oct. 3, 2013. As part of the event, [student Olivia Johnson] and an instructor, Ashley Mathieson, were conducting a chemistry experiment in the school hallway that involved identifying various chemicals by the color of the flame they emit when burned. As part of the experiment, substances were placed in a crucible or petri dish and Mathieson poured liquid methanol over them from a 4-liter jug, which Johnson would then light. The complaint said Johnson was holding a lighter to the dish when Mathieson became engaged in an “animated conversation” with another student and her mother, turning her back to Johnson, the complaint said. Mathieson abruptly turned and poured more methanol on the open flame, causing a “flash fire that engulfed [Johnson] in a ball of flames.” … A series of “after” [photos of Johnson] shows widespread scarring on her hands, arms, chest, back and neck. … [Attorney Joseph Neal Jr. said that] school systems are protected from suit by sovereign immunity, while school employees enjoy the protection of official immunity. Only if such an employee can be shown to have negligently performed or failed to perform a ministerial duty—one which is mandated by rule or law—is there exposure to liability. That threshold, said Neal, makes it virtually impossible to sue a teacher or principal. But he said a conversation with a laboratory safety expert who specializes in school fires alerted him to the National Fire Protection Association safety standards—standards that had been incorporated into Georgia’s fire safety code and adopted by Douglas County ordinance. “That means they’re law; they’re mandatory,” Neal said. In September, the lawyers, along with ChancoSchiffer partner Douglas Chanco, filed a suit in Douglas County Superior Court on Johnson’s behalf, naming Mathieson and Chapel Hill Principal Sean Kelly as defendants. The suit said the defendants had violated several “ministerial, mandatory, and non-discretionary Douglas County and state of Georgia fire codes, laws and regulations” by conducting the rainbow experiment in a school hallway not separated from the building by a fire barrier, improperly storing and handling the methanol, failing to safeguard against the exposure of hazardous materials and fumes to flame and ignoring a red-lettered sign on the chemical cabinet where...

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Lessons from methanol flash fires
Jan19

Lessons from methanol flash fires

From a letter to the editor in this week’s C&EN: Yet another methanol flash fire has occurred with injuries when a high school teacher was demonstrating the “rainbow” flame test (C&EN, Nov. 9, 2015, page 6). While “rainbow” demonstrations have been conducted safely many times, they become dangerous if a large bottle of methanol is brought back to the demonstration to add more methanol. This same mistake has been repeated many times with catastrophic results. … The big lesson learned is that undergraduates (tomorrow’s teachers, graduate students, scientists) need a solid safety laboratory education—the long-term fix. Today’s undergraduates get safety training, not a safety education. Safety education teaches the “why” behind hazards so the student can understand and learn to respect the need for safety. Understanding the “why” teaches students the basis for safety measures and rules—making them more likely to use and follow them. Safety education teaches the student to think critically about safety. More than once, I have heard, “There’s not room in the curriculum” for safety education. We need to rethink our priorities, values, and ethics. Among various topics in chemistry, safety is the only one that can result in serious injuries or death if it is not taught or valued. Safety education needs to be included in the chemistry curriculum from the very beginning, teaching principle-based safety: Recognize hazards, assess the risks of hazards, minimize the risks of hazards, and prepare for emergencies. Many of our science teachers only take a few courses in chemistry, so we need to get to them early and often to give them as much of a safety education as we can before they move on to other majors—it is clear that flammable hazards need to be understood by these students. Read the full letter here. Find safety resources for demos and student experiments at...

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How to do classroom demos safely
Nov19

How to do classroom demos safely

“One of these days, someone is going to die” from injuries sustained in a chemistry classroom fire, Calais Weber Biery says. “I almost did.” In response to all the students injured in alcohol-fueled school fires, C&EN has released a package focused on classroom demo and experiment safely. It’s got a story, an infographic illustrating the National Fire Protection Association recommendations for demos, and a video depicting the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety’s recommended procedure for flame tests (soak sticks in aqueous salt solutions, then burn them in a bunsen burner). The package went online yesterday at http://cenm.ag/labdemo and will be in Monday’s print issue (Nov. 23). Please feel free to share the link or...

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Fire from rainbow demo injures five students in Virginia
Nov02

Fire from rainbow demo injures five students in Virginia

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: WTOP: Fire at Woodson H.S. injures 6 (Oct. 30), Experts advocate changes after Woodson H.S. chemistry class accident (Nov. 1), 3 students return to school after Woodson chemistry fire (Nov. 4) WUSA: Student injured in Woodson HS fire needs surgery, ‘will recover’ (Oct. 31) Fox 5 DC: 5 W.T. Woodson HS students, teacher injured in chemistry lab fire (Oct. 31) NBC 4 Washington: Chemistry experiment sparked explosion in Va. high school that hurt students (Oct. 30), Woodson students back in...

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Lab fire protection standard updated to include class demos
Sep09

Lab fire protection standard updated to include class demos

Responding in part to a string of student injuries from science demonstrations–often the result of fires from demos that use methanol as a fuel–the National Fire Protection Association has updated its standard 45, which covers fire protection for laboratories using chemicals. Included in the revisions is a new chapter on educational and instructional laboratories, with retroactive requirements to protect students from demonstrations. “[W]e cannot afford to burn any more students in science demonstrations,” says Andrew Minister, a chief fire protection engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and chair of the NFPA committee that updated the standard, in the NFPA Journal. “These accidents are preventable.” The new requirements cover instructor responsibilities, storing and handling chemicals, and safety controls for demonstrations. NFPA has the updated standard available on its website for free. The American Chemical Society also has several classroom safety guides, as well as a recommended procedure for flame test demonstrations. Additionally, the U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board has a safety bulletin, “Key Lessons for Preventing Incidents from Flammable Chemicals in Educational Demonstrations”, and a video featuring a woman who was burned in a school demo fire when she was...

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