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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Denver student hit in chest with jet of flaming methanol
Sep17

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...

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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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Chemical safety for teachers webinar next week
Sep11

Chemical safety for teachers webinar next week

Just a quick post to spread the word that the American Association of Chemistry Teachers is holding a webinar on Tuesday, Sept. 16, from 7-8 pm Eastern on "Chemical Safety for Teachers": Join professor and chemical safety expert Sammye Sigmann as she discusses laboratory standards, stockroom management, and answers your questions about safety in the chemistry classroom. Register...

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Tornado simulation results in methanol fire, children burned
Sep08

Tornado simulation results in methanol fire, children burned

Take-home message (again): Don't pour alcohol anywhere near a possible flame. Last week, a flash fire at the Discovery Museum in Reno, Nev., sent two adult and seven children to a local hospital for burns and smoke inhalation. The demo that led to the fire was a tornado simulation, in which a colored flame is rotated in a mesh container to create a whirling effect. The details of what happened are still a bit unclear, but it appears that the demonstrator was supposed to add methanol with a cotton ball and some boric acid (for color), and ignite it. Instead, she initially forgot the alcohol and added it after trying to light the cotton ball, according to the Associated Press. The lit cotton ball ignited the fire. If the cotton ball wasn't already lit, however, there was clearly another ignition source nearby that set off the fire. We've seen this happen many times, usually with a "rainbow" flame test demo. Many children have been injured. And it's all easily preventable with a little thought and care. To quote from a statement prepared by the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety (link coming): CCS calls upon all of our educators to help us reach out to all members of the scientific community to look more carefully at all demonstrations involving the use of methanol on open bench tops. The educational value of these particular demonstrations should be carefully weighed against the risk of flash fires from ignition of methanol vapors. At no time should methanol be poured from an open bottle on an open bench top in the presence of a flame or source of ignition – the risk of a flash fire is very...

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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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