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Fire Injures Five High School Chemistry Students

Safety: Concerns grow about use of methanol as fuel in demonstrations

by Jyllian Kemsley
November 5, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 44

Credit: Dayna Smith
Police and firefighters outside W.T. Woodson High School after a fire injured five students.
Photo of police on motorcycles, fire trucks, and an ambulance.
Credit: Dayna Smith
Police and firefighters outside W.T. Woodson High School after a fire injured five students.

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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