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Lab safety guidance

March 21, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 12

The article “Teaching Safely” (C&EN, Nov. 23, 2015, page 37) discusses a ghastly 2006 high school chemistry class accident involving flammable solvents and describes various steps that have been taken to avoid such accidents. In the past 15 years, at least 22 students and four teachers have suffered burns, most of them severe, as a result of demonstrations that incorporated methanol solutions. Yet flame tests that can identify various metallic ions by the colors produced in their emission spectra can be done very safely using saturated aqueous solutions of these salts, as described in an excellent teaching procedure and lesson plan complete with questions for students written by Deborah Dogancay (

These many accidents, especially the one described in C&EN, are each a tragedy and a blot on the reputation of chemical education. I believe that an effective action by C&EN would be to reprint the article together with the Dogancay teaching procedure and lesson plan in a format that ACS members could send to their local high school or middle school for their information.

Manfred E. Wolff
Laguna Beach, Calif.

Nobody seems to want to give the obvious answer to the question of how to make chemistry classroom demonstrations and experiments safer: Stop doing classroom demonstrations altogether, or at least any that ought to be in a hood. These demos are often done to show how “fun” chemistry is, when the truth is that it is serious science.

And there is simply no need to do these as live demos. A video of a demo done safely in a laboratory is a much better option than trying to do pyrotechnics live in front of a class. I have yet to hear of anyone dying from watching a video.

By the way, this is hardly a new problem (J. Chem. Educ. 1994, DOI: 10.1021/ed071p109).

Lee J. Silverberg
Schuylkill Haven, Pa.

Editor’s note: To assist educators, C&EN and ACS released an infographic illustrating new National Fire Protection Association guidance for conducting demonstrations and experiments, as well as a video showing how to conduct flame tests using aqueous salt solutions. The resources are available at



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