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Lab Safety

Fire injuries prompt CSB to push again on classroom chemical safety

After multiple high school lab fires, US Chemical Safety Board reminds educators of guidance

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
October 29, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 38


A person holding a wooden stick in a flame, which is green.
Credit: ACS
Information on how to conduct lab demonstrations and experiments safely can be found at

Three students and a teacher were treated for burns after a chemistry lab fire Oct. 12 at Dinwiddie High School in Virginia. One of the students was hospitalized for 2 weeks. The incident involved a classroom demonstration using methanol, according to the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), which is again promoting its classroom safety guidance.

The fire was far from the first caused by methanol in school science classes. Typically, such fires stem from demonstrations that involve burning a flammable liquid, usually methanol, according to the CSB. In some cases, after a demonstration has started, methanol from bulk containers is poured directly onto flames, then a flashback into the container ignites the rest of the fuel. The resulting fire can injure people as far as 4.5 m away.

When three serious accidents occurred over 8 weeks in 2014, the CSB issued a safety bulletin.

The bulletin provides four key lessons: do not use bulk containers of flammable chemicals when small quantities are sufficient; implement strict safety controls when handling hazardous chemicals; conduct a comprehensive hazard review of demonstration protocols; and provide a safety barrier between the demonstration and audience.

While demonstrations involving flammable chemicals can be important teaching tools, “they must be done safely,” CSB interim head Steve Owens says in a statement. “We urge school administrators and teachers to review and follow the CSB’s safety lessons for these kinds of demonstrations so that no one is harmed by these preventable accidents.”

The CSB is not investigating the Dinwiddie incident.



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