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Safety First

by A. Maureen Rouhi
January 20, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 3

Two recent accidents should remind us all of the importance of safety in handling chemicals. On Jan. 2, two high school students at Beacon High School, in New York City, were injured when a chemistry demonstration ran amok. A few days later, 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) leaking from a chemical supplier’s storage tank contaminated the water supply of hundreds of thousands of people in West Virginia.

After the Rainbow
Credit: CSB

In New York City, what went badly was the popular “rainbow” demonstration, which involves a series of mineral salts that emit different colors when burned. What exactly went wrong is not clear. C&EN reporter and safety blogger Jyllian Kemsley surmises that methanol was the fuel used to burn the salts. And a safety video from the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), released just weeks before the accident, identifies improper handling of methanol as the cause of an explosion during a similar demonstration .

The accident could have been easily prevented, according to James A. Kaufman, the president and founder of the Laboratory Safety Institute (LSI). Kaufman is also a founding member and former chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of Chemical Health & Safety. Based in Natick, Mass., LSI provides safety training for science teachers in secondary schools.

A shield between the students and the demonstration should have been in place, Kaufman says. And only the small amount of methanol needed should have been present in the demonstration area. “In all cases where children have been hurt in demonstrations involving alcohols, the supply was brought out, not small amounts.”

CSB Chair Rafael Moure-Eraso expressed distress upon learning of the accident in New York City. It “is all too similar to one we highlighted recently in a video,” he said.

The CSB video features Calais Weber, who was badly burned in a similar demonstration gone awry in 2006 at an Ohio high school. Kaufman, who served as the plaintiff’s expert witness in the case brought against the school by the injured parties, maintains that the rainbow demonstration should not be banned. “We don’t want people to be scared of chemicals,” he explains. “We want them to be comfortable with them. We drive around with 20 gal of gasoline underneath us, and we don’t go nuts over it.”

What’s needed is education and training of science teachers, Kaufman says. In addition, the supervisors of science teachers should be held accountable when injuries occur in schools as a result of violations of health and safety regulations. “It’s criminal that principals and superintendents aren’t paying more attention to compliance with health and safety regulations,” he says.

Free educational resources are available, Kaufman says. Over the years, the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety has published four guides for chemical safety in the classroom: “Safety in the Elementary Science Classroom,” “Chemical Safety for Teachers and Their Supervisors, Grades 7–12,” “Reducing Risks to Students and Educators from Hazardous Chemicals in a Secondary School Chemical Inventory,” and “Student Laboratory Code of Conduct for Secondary Science Program.”

LSI offers “Laboratory Safety Guidelines,” written by Kaufman. According to the LSI website, the institute “offers these suggestions for improving laboratory safety because we believe that having an understanding of inherent hazards and learning how to be safer and healthier should be an integral and important part of science education, work, and life.” Amen to that.

In West Virginia, meanwhile, residents and businesses were advised not to use water from their taps until the levels of MCHM were determined to be safe. It will take time to quantify the cost of the disruption to people’s lives and the health, economic, environmental, and other effects.

C&EN reporters Cheryl Hogue and Jeff Johnson are monitoring the developments (see page 7). MCHM is used to clean coal for electric power plants, they report, and the paucity of toxicity data is confounding the response to the contamination. Ultimately, the leak’s cause may be lax regulatory oversight. Sadly, safety first is not always the first priority of state and federal officials.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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