Fire Injures Five High School Chemistry Students | November 9, 2015 Issue - Vol. 93 Issue 44 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 93 Issue 44 | p. 6 | News of The Week
Issue Date: November 9, 2015 | Web Date: November 5, 2015

Fire Injures Five High School Chemistry Students

Safety: Concerns grow about use of methanol as fuel in demonstrations
Department: Science & Technology | Collection: Safety
Keywords: safety, laboratory, demonstration, school, K-12, museum
Police and firefighters outside W.T. Woodson High School after a fire injured five students.
Credit: Dayna Smith
Photo of police on motorcycles, fire trucks, and an ambulance.
Police and firefighters outside W.T. Woodson High School after a fire injured five students.
Credit: Dayna Smith

Five students and a teacher were injured in a fire at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Va., on Oct. 30. The school has released no details about the incident, but local media reports indicate that the fire happened during a chemistry class demonstration called a “rainbow” flame test.

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 into it,” said one student interviewed by Fox 5 DC. “It was like a whoosh coming out, and it was like kind of a sideways fireball.”

The fire comes amid growing concern about use of fuels such as methanol in educational demonstrations. C&EN counts that at least 46 people have been injured in similar incidents across the U.S. since September 2013.

Of those injured at Woodson, two students were flown by helicopter to area hospitals. One was released on Nov. 2, and the second was still hospitalized as of C&EN press time. The other three students were treated at a local hospital and released the day of the incident. The teacher was treated at the school.

The American Chemical Society, National Fire Protection Association, National Science Teachers Association, and Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board have each issued safety alerts or recommendations to prevent similar incidents.

“Teachers say, ‘Oh, I’ve done it this way for years and never had a problem,’ ” says Ken Roy, director of environmental health and safety for Glastonbury Public Schools in Connecticut and chief science safety compliance adviser to the National Science Teachers Association. “But they’re underestimating the power of methanol.”

Still, Roy emphasizes that schools should not ban demonstrations, hands-on experiments, or even methanol in response to these accidents. Instead, teachers need to be trained and required to do hazard analyses and risk assessments prior to demos or labs. They also need to take the precautions indicated by those assessments, such as handling chemicals appropriately and using barriers for protection.

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Tom. C. (November 5, 2015 11:17 PM)
Hands-on experience instead hands-on experiments. Safety awareness, training and hands-on experience are critical to conduct these demonstrations safely. This experiment should be conducted inside a chemical fume hood using small qty. of alcohol.
Jay Tompkins (November 16, 2015 7:22 AM)
From my teen years in Alberta, Canada i learned about the failure of methanol as being safe for alcohol lamps, almost the hard way. For a birthday present I had received a Chemistry set made by a British company named, "Merit". For the alcohol lamp included, the fuel was indicated as to be "methylated spirits". At the pharmacy, neither the pharmacist nor me understood that "methylated spirits" meant denatured ethanol. At the time there was still a "prohibition attitude" in Alberta and so alcohol could be sold only at government licensed liquor stores and the "methylated spirits" sold to me at the pharmacy was actually methanol. I even had to sign a log every time I purchased a bottle, One time I noticed the flame on my alcohol burner to be brighter than usual and i also noticed the burner to be hotter than usual. Even back then I realized that for some reason the fuel inside was near the boiling point so I just blew the flame out. In future experiments I used the alcohol lamp for very limited times. Methanol has a very low boiling point and so I am puzzled at how some modern science teachers can believe that methanol is a safe fuel for science demonstrations. But wait, here is more.

At graduate school here in the US I was a GTA for an organic chemistry course designed for students enrolled in professional programs. According to a manual that came from a source outside of the university, an acetone bath was heated using a bunsen burner in order to distill an ether solution. In my class there were two situations where students insisted that their setup was correct but were not and both caught fire. I was calm and realized that an acetone fire cooled itself enough for the fire to be as easily as blowing out a candle. I still don't advise anyone to see if this works. I believe that I was able to convince the professor to use steam heaters already installed in each lab, instead of bunsen burners. In this case, i saw that the professor was to blame for following a written procedure and not common sense.

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