Lawsuits detail injuries from rainbow demonstration fire in New York school
Jan06

Lawsuits detail injuries from rainbow demonstration fire in New York school

Three lawsuits have now been filed by families of students injured a year ago when a New York high school teacher poured methanol from a gallon container during a “rainbow” flame test demonstration. New York Post stories about the lawsuits give some details of the students’ injuries: Alonzo Yanes suffered second- and third-degree burns on his body, head, face, neck, torso, and hands. “He’s horrifically scarred, wearing all sorts of protective clothing and a brace on his neck,” the family’s attorney, Jeffrey Bloom, told the Post. His parents are suing the city for $27 million. Julia Saltonstall suffered first- and second-degree burns to her arm, torso, and face. Her family is suing for $10 million. Sara Salitan has respiratory problems and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and crying fits. Court papers in this suit did not list a specific amount. h/t Chemjobber. For a safer flame test demonstration, use wooden applicators soaked in salt...

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CSB recommends stricter controls for educational demos
Nov04

CSB recommends stricter controls for educational demos

The U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board released a report last week with “Key Lessons for Preventing Incidents from Flammable Chemicals in Educational Demonstrations.” When C&EN posted my story about the report on Friday, we said that 20 children and two adults had been injured in fires from educational demos since the start of September. As we posted the story, there was another incident, at a high school in Chicago: “The students were mixing chemicals in the chemistry lab to create a green flame when something went wrong and there was an explosion, police said.” That incident brings the injury count to 22 children and two adults. CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso would like educators to reconsider whether it is necessary to do demonstrations involving hazardous materials, he said at a press conference on Oct. 30. Here are a couple of papers that address that question (h/t Ralph Stuart, Keene State College chemical hygiene officer and ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety secretary): “Chemical demonstrations: Learning theories suggest caution,” Michael Roadruck, J. Chem. Educ. 1993, DOI: 10.1021/ed070p1025 “The science and art of science demonstrations,” Thomas O’Brien, J. Chem. Educ. 1991, DOI: 10.1021/ed068p933 Updated to add: “Demonstrations and good pedagogy,” James Laughner, “Chemistry Solutions,” November 2014 If demonstrations really are necessary, then CSB recommends: Implement strict safety controls—written procedures, training, and personal protective equipment—when lab demonstrators are handling hazardous materials. Conduct a thorough hazard review before performing any activity with flammable chemicals. Avoid using bulk containers of flammable liquids in education demonstrations—separately dispense only the amount needed. Provide a safety barrier between any activity involving flammable chemicals and the audience. Although that doesn’t go far enough for Calais Weber, who was injured in a chemistry demo fire in 2006. “It is my belief that until there exists a standard mandatory protocol for training all science teachers, there is no reason for methanol to be used in classrooms. My education and love for chemistry was not fostered by seeing a demonstration in person, and it would not have been hindered by simply watching a video of it being performed in a controlled setting by trained chemists,” she said at the CSB press conference. The American Association of Chemistry Teachers has a webinar TODAY on teaching lab safety in the chemistry classroom. AACT members can also take Division of Chemical Health & Safety workshops at ACS national and regional meetings for the discounted price of...

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CSB warns against using methanol in classroom or lab demos
Sep15

CSB warns against using methanol in classroom or lab demos

Following up on the flash fire during a “tornado” demo in a Nevada museum, the U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board released a statement today containing details of the incident and warning against using methanol in combustion demonstrations. CSB investigators responded to the museum fire, and their description of what happened confirms what the Associated Press reported: Our investigative team determined that the incident occurred during a “fire tornado” demonstration where salts of different elements were combusted in a dish in the presence of alcohol-soaked cotton balls, while spinning on a lazy Susan-type rotating tray. This produces a tornado-like colored flame that rises in the air. The incident happened during a version where boric acid was to be burned in the presence of a methanol-soaked cotton ball. When the cotton failed to ignite it was realized that it had not been adequately wetted with methanol. More methanol was added to the cotton from a four-liter (one gallon) plastic bottle. Unknown to personnel, the cotton ball was likely continuing to smolder, and it ignited the freshly added methanol and flashed back to the bottle. Burning methanol then sprayed from the bottle toward the nearby audience of adults and children visiting the museum. The CSB statement, by chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, goes on to say that: Methanol is an essential chemical and an emerging energy resource with a multitude of important industrial and environmental uses. But in the cautionary words of Greg Dolan, CEO of the Methanol Institute, which represents the manufacturing community, “Like gasoline, methanol is a toxic and flammable chemical and should only be handled in appropriate settings, and that would certainly not include museums and classrooms.” Methanol readily emits heavier-than-air flammable vapors and the liquid has a low flash point, meaning it can ignite at room temperature in the presence of an ignition source. This creates an unacceptable risk of flash fire whenever any appreciable quantities of methanol are handled in the open lab or classroom in the presence of pervasive ignition sources, such as open flames, heat sources, or sparks. There is also a significant risk of flashback to any nearby methanol bulk container, as was the case in this last incident in Reno, Nevada. … Today I am calling on all schools, museums, and science educators to discontinue any use of bulk methanol – or other similar flammables – in lab demonstrations that involve combustion, open flames, or ignition sources. There are safer alternative ways to demonstrate the same scientific phenomena, and many teachers are already using them. Any use of methanol or other flammables should be either avoided completely or restricted to minimal amounts, which...

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Report released on New York high school fire
Jun27

Report released on New York high school fire

The New York Special Commissioner of Investigation yesterday released its report regarding the Beacon High School fire last January. The fire was widely reported to involve the “rainbow” flame test experiment. And indeed it did. And, as many suspected, this is what happened: Pool continued that, as she lit each Petri dish, a different color flame appeared. When the flames died out, the students asked Poole to conduct the experiment again. Poole explained that, this time, after she added the nitrates to the Petri dish, she reached for the one gallon container of methanol to add to the Petri dish and, all of a sudden, a fire ball–like a blowtorch–erupted and shot across the room. Poole did not hear anything, but saw a white flame shoot across the room, adn and then Studnet Student A was on fire. I truly do not understand why so many teachers decide to pour an alcohol from a large container around open flames. For a safer way to do the experiment, soak wooden sticks in chloride solutions, then burn them in a Bunsen burner, as recommended by the National Science Teachers Association. People at the University of California, Davis, chemistry department have experimented with this as well to find an optimal procedure to produce vibrant colors. Their results aren’t published yet, but contact Debbie Decker for more information. (I’m traveling and without my laptop, so I had to retype the quote. Any typos or other errors in that quote are mine. Monday update: typos...

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Performing the ‘rainbow’ flame test demo safely
Jan07

Performing the ‘rainbow’ flame test demo safely

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...

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