Cautious Chemist #2: Be Responsible

safety before excitement

I recently spoke by email with Bob Worley as he prepared an article, But Surely That’s Banned, sharing some thoughts on chemical safety for teachers from his UK perspective. Part of the discussion revolved around our shared concern for using methanol for demonstrations. The Fire Tornado demonstration, that was part of the September 2014 Nevada museum incident, can easily be found in written form and video in a quick Google search.

It is frustrating to me that many of the links that I checked out in my search gave just enough instruction to make an untrained person feel confident, but not enough instruction to keep them or the people surrounding them safe. I focused my search on websites that claimed to be created for educators as I was trying to put myself in the place of an inexperienced chemistry teacher looking for ideas. I am not saying that experienced teachers are immune to mistakes, but I had just read that a new teacher in Colorado had been fired because of an accident that occurred in September so I asked myself what I would find if I was a new teacher searching for demonstrations. Many of the sites had little or no safety information. Although it will seem intuitive to some, the instructions should remind the demonstrator to remove the alcohol bottle from the vicinity of the demonstration before any flame is produced. It seems like many incidents happen when a demonstrator pours alcohol directly onto a flame. Standing in front of a classroom or crowd of students, it can be easy for the presenter to be distracted and make an error if the alcohol bottle is within arms reach. 

The Journal of Chemical Education has published over 100 Classroom Activities that are known for using household type materials. I am a huge fan of these and similar activities because I feel that students can easily make a connection to the materials, the materials are inexpensive and easy to obtain and I have fewer concerns about safety. But, there is a limit to what “household” materials I will consider using in my chemistry classroom. In my discussion with Bob Worley, he pointed out some sites that recommended using materials that worry both of us. Once I had reviewed the Tornado demo on a site, I took a quick look around each site to see what else I might find. Many sites point out products that you can purchase to obtain chemicals without purchasing them through a chemical supply house. That raises some questions for me since the sites I looked at claimed to be for teachers. To make things worse, the sites often suggested using these products to produce a colorful flame. Even if we forget the danger of using the flammables, I have questions about the toxicity of burning these products.

ChemEd X has shared safety alerts published by the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety and the US Chemical Safety Board along with other safety related resources. I encourage you to check out the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety page and look at the alerts again. They have also posted a “New and Improved – Flame Test Demonstration”. I have long used a similar procedure, but I use damp sticks. I have not waited for them to dry. You may also wish to review the recent statement published by the US Chemical Safety Board concerning the Nevada incident. I appreciate their clear explanation of what makes methanol so hazardous. The ACS has published a helpful resource, “Chemical Safety for Teachers and Their Supervisors Grades 7-12” that also discusses issues surrounding flammability as well as the toxicity of methanol and other substances.  I would like to see something like this sent as assigned coursework for chemistry teachers across the US. Chemical Laboratory Information Profiles (CLIPs) are a helpful resource to assess required safety precautions that I would also like to see updated also.

It is my sincere wish that ChemEd X readers will help spread the word about the recent incidents and safety alerts. It will take the effort of educators around the country to ensure that the all teachers are reminded to be responsible and use the highest safety measures possible. 










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Comments 3

Keith Campbell | Wed, 10/22/2014 - 13:58

I am a retired chemical engineer; I have worked in chemical test laboratories on and off during my career. I have been a middle school science fair judge for 5+ years. When I first started judging I noticed that many common but potentially dangerous chemicals were being used in experiments and asked the kids and the teachers if anyone had ever mentioned safety to them. Almost all the kids said no. I asked them if they had heard of the MSDS or if they ever read the caution labels on the containers or looked at the chemical concentration label and they said no. I pointed this out to many of the Science Fair Staff and I got polite yawns. When I pushed the issue several people indicated that if they pushed safety the kids would lose interest in science experiments.

I kept pushing the issue and got laughed at. Then I came across quart bottles of acetone on the exibit table at a Science Fair. I insisted that the bottles be put in a safe, inaccessible place outside the building. I started to distribute information about the dangers with using acetone (I have had personal experience) including volatility, low flash point and wide explosive range. But I was told that acetone was used in nail polish remover and never been harmed. I kept bringing the chemical safety issue up and was ignored.

Then I read about the methanol fires which were an example of what I was talking about. I passed out information about these fires. I pointed out that there were potential civil and professional liabilities for these accidents. I got no response.

I will keep pushing the Safety issue but I will be retiring soon.

    Keith Campbell, Colorado PE 7128; Bachelor, Chemical Engineering, Cornell University1953








John Varine's picture
John Varine | Thu, 10/23/2014 - 11:47

Before retiring, in addition to teaching H.S. chemistry, I was also Science Dept. Head, K-12 in my district.  Over those years, I saw several dangerous situations.  One involved a Jr. High science teacher using carbon disulfide in a demonstration, then dumping what remained down his sink, which was then covered to make the lecture desk flat.  Some time later, he had a lit burner near the sink and took off the cover, causing the carbon disulfide vapor that had collectedin the sink to flash fire.  Fortunately, no one was injured.  A second involved an elementary teacher who called me to come and pick up some mercury he had. Turned out to be a quart mayonaise jar almost full of mercury.  Imagine if that had broken in his classroom!!

Keith Campbell | Thu, 10/23/2014 - 11:22

An article in today's "Denver Post" states that the teacher who conducted the methanol fire demonstration that injured several students has been charged with negligence.

                  Keith Campbell