The Pantagraph -- Sunday, July 7, 2002, Section B, Page 4

(Reprinted with permission of the Pantagraph)

School Chemistry Lab Accidents On the Rise

Hands-on work requires greater emphasis on safety


In a blinding flash, the routine high school chemistry experiment turned to chaos.

An alcohol-fueled fireball shot into the classroom, searing the skin of three junior honor students in the front row. They took the brunt of the blast on their faces, necks, arms, hands and legs.

The teacher pulled burning jeans off one of the girls; scorched skin fell from the boy's face. The rest of the class scrambled for the door, leaving burned backpacks and books behind.

The fire at Genoa-Kingston High School last October may have been a horrible accident, but it was not isolated. Across the country; at least 150 students have been seriously injured in school laboratory accidents in the last four years.

Bigger increase in sight

But the number is almost certainly much higher, according to interviews with researchers, school officials and insurance companies. And the stage is set for a significant increase, they said.

As schools try to meet tough new science education standards set by the National Academy of Sciences in 1996, students are spending more time in laboratories. Some are crowded. Some have teachers with no safety training. Some are in 19th-century buildings ill-equipped for 21st-century science.

"Before, most kids were reading out of textbooks, but the new federal science standards absolutely, strongly advocate hands-on, inquiry-based science," said Kenneth Roy; chairman of the National Science Teachers Association's science safety advisory board. "What this means is, you have to have safety concerns as job one, but some schools don't."

Almost all of the accidents and injuries could have been prevented with simple safety measures, the experts said. But many teachers are unaware of the dangers, and there is no formal system to distribute information on accidents so that teachers can learn from the mistakes of others. '

In fact, no government or private agency collects official data on school laboratory accidents. Federal and state workplace laws protect teachers and other employees, and require extensive reporting. But students have no such protections. As a result, the exact number of accidents is unknown.

A serious problem

But they occur often enough to be considered a serious problem, according to safety experts and insurers who have paid millions of dollars to settle claims.

"There have been some terrible accidents and injuries that are just absolutely gross," said John Wilson, executive director of the Schools Excess Liability Fund in California, which recently paid more than $1 million in one case involving a chemistry accident and more than $3 million in another.

There is evidence that the number of -accidents has risen since schools began adopting the new teaching standards. In Iowa, there were 674 accidents in the 1990, 1991 and 1992 school years, but more than 1,000 in the following three school years, said Jack Gerlovich, who teaches science safety at Drake University:

The increase came after Iowa schools began adopting an early version of the new standards, he said. The number of lawsuits soared, too, to 245 from 96. Gerlovich said he suspects the same thing is happening in other states.

"The potential for accidents is much, much greater, and we're going to see more. I think this was the tip of an iceberg," Gerlovich said.

When the swoosh of fire hit Autum Burton, she was returning to her seat in her chemistry class after taking a closer look at the colors of the flames in the six petri dishes on the teacher's table.

In an instant she was engulfed in flames.

"I could feel it eating at me and I could smell my skin burning," she recalled recently; "I was on the floor trying to get this off with my hands."

By the time someone finally managed to wrap her in a blanket and put out the fire, she was burned over almost half her body: face, neck, chest, arm and legs.

Autum Burton showed her scars suffered when a high school lab demonstration went awry in Battle Creek, Mich., in January 2000.

Burton, 19, now attends Columbia College in Chicago. Despite eight skin graft operations and three laser treatments to diminish scarring on her face, she will be disfigured for the rest of her life.

The accident happened two years ago at Lakeview High School in Battle Creek, Mich. Just two months earlier, a 16-year-old girl was severely burned in a similar accident that had happened about 40 miles away at Waverly High School near Lansing. In both cases, the experiments involved methyl alcohol.

A volatile chemical that ignites easily, methyl alcohol often is involved in the most catastrophic accidents. In recent years, it also has caused flash fires at schools in Santa Clarita and Riverside, Calif.; Genoa; Midland, Texas; New Berlin, Wis.; and Washington D,C. It has also caused explosions in which students were injured by flying glass.

If the teacher does not use an exhaust system, leaves the cap off the alcohol jug or pours too much into the dishes, fumes can build up and, if exposed to flame, create a flash fire. If the fumes come from an open bottle, the explosion can eject the liquid, followed by a ball of fire.

"You get a flame-thrower effect," said Steve Weston, a lawyer representing Burton and the student from Lansing. "It jettisons fluid from the bottle, whose opening is pointed like a gun right at these students."

The fire marshal in Battle Creek determined Burton's accident could have been prevented if an exhaust system in the room had been used to draw away fumes. And the injuries might have been minimized if the teacher had used a plastic shield or required the students to wear goggles.

In many cases, school officials believed such protection was unnecessary when students were watching, rather than participating in, an experiment even though most states have laws requiring eye protection under such circumstances.

But a high percentage of science teachers have never had safety training, and in some cases, the schools didn't even own the necessary safety equipment, experts said.

Gerlovich, the Drake University researcher, has found, for example, that more than 70 percent of North Carolina science teachers had never received safety training. Surveys in 17 other states found an average of 55 percent to 65 percent of teachers have never been trained in safety; Gerlovich said.

The lack of training is alarming for another reason, experts said: Many teachers don't know how to safely store chemicals, which can cause dangerous reactions if they accidentally mix. Some teachers erroneously store chemicals alphabetically instead of by chemical type, or store them beyond their safe life span.

Eight months after the Genoa-Kingston flash fire, Rachel Anderson, Eric Baenziger and Kara Butts are still recovering from their burns Kara and Eric wear pressure garments 24 hours a day to reduce scarring, and both will require skin grafts, said their lawyer, Michael Alesia. The students declined to be interviewed for this story.

All eventually returned to school. Administrators are trying to sort out what happened and whether they should change their chemistry procedures. The teacher was not disciplined and remains on staff, according to the school's superintendent, Richard Leahy. The teacher did not respond to a request for an interview, but Leahy said, "No one agonized more than this man over hurting his students. He's a retired professional chemist; he teaches because he loves it."

The Genoa-Kingston case illustrates a lack of school safety oversight common in most states, where laws, if they exist, are almost never enforced in schools.

Aside from eye protection requirements, few laws are aimed specifically at students. School labs rarely undergo inspections from state or federal authorities and there usually are no requirements that accidents be reported to anyone outside the school.

"The schools are pretty much left on their own," said James A.Kaufman, director of the Massachusetts-based Laboratory Safety Institute, a nonprofit agency that promotes school lab safety; "They all assume these are smart people, they have a science degree, they know how to do this properly. This is not true in some significant measure."

Greg Laskowski, left, of the district attorney's crime lab, and Jay Olsen, insurance investigator for the school district, examined a chemistry lab at East Bakersfield High School in Bakersfield, Calif. A glass container filled with methanol exploded during a routing experiment in 1999, showering chemistry students with shards of glass, according to a fire department spokesman.

Rescue personnel moved science teacher Lance Hansen to a waiting ambulance following an explosion at a school in Hyrum, Utah, in November 2000. School officials said the teacher was mixing chemicals in an 8th-grade science class when the beaker exploded, sending glass flying.


Recent School Chemistry Accidents

Tulsa, Okla.: Five students suffer chemical burns and cuts, part of counter blown away at Bishop Kelley High School when science experiment explodes as students combine potassium chlorate and sulfur. March 27, 2002.

New Berlin, Wis.: Teacher and eight students burned, four students seriously, at West High School after fireball shoots 20 feet into a theater during an experiment involving methanol and chemical salts. March 11, 2002.

Genoa: Seven students burned, three critically, at Genoa-Kingston High School after flash fire involving demonstration with methanol and chemical salts. Oct. 11, 2001.

Camarillo, Calif.: Three students burned, one critically, in explosion at Cornerstone Christian School, after teacher tries to pour nitric acid from one glass beaker to another. March 29, 2001. ,

Galesburg: Five high school students injured, including two who undergo eye surgery, when ethanol / methylene blue solution explodes. February 2001.

Hyrum, Utah: Teacher and 13 students injured by flying glass when 5-gallon jug of methanol explodes as teacher ignites vapors emanating from jug. Nov. 2, -2000.

Washington D.C.: Two students burned at St. Albans School when container of alcohol explodes during chemistry demonstration. Nov. 21, 2000.

Riverside, Calif.: Two students severely burned in flash fire at Martin Luther King High School during demonstration involving methanol and chloride salts. Nov. 1, 2000.

Decatur, Ga.: Twenty-five Decatur High School students and two teachers taken to hospitals after exposure to nitrogen-based gas during a chemistry experiment. Four students and teachers treated for headaches, sore throats and chest tightness; 21 students taken to hospital as a precaution. Oct. 19, 2000.

Midland, Texas: Three students burned, one critically, by flash fire at Lee High School during chemistry demonstration involving methanol and chemical salts. Oct. 10, 2000.

Conneaut Lake, Pa.: Six high school students injured when a beaker explodes as they mix ethyl alcohol, acetone and water. Feb. 11, 2000.

Battle Creek, Mich.: Three students and teacher burned one student critically in flash fire at Lakeview High School during demonstration involving methanol and chemical salts. Jan. 28, 2000.

Lansing, Mich.: One student critically burned, 12 others injured, at Waverly High School after methanol gas ignites during experiment in which methanol vapors are used to blow a cork from a plastic bottle. Nov. 24, 1999.

Raleigh, N.C.: Seventeen students taken to a hospital for observation, after being exposed to fumes from a chemistry demonstration that caught fire. No injuries reported. Nov. 12,1999.

Bakersfield, Calif.: Teacher and 22 students treated for cuts, headaches and nausea after glass bottle of methanol explodes in chemistry lab. Aug. 31, 1999.

Santa Clarita, Calif.: Three students burned, one critically, when makeshift cannon explodes during experiment to launch tennis balls. Nov. 25,1998.

Hilo, Hawaii: More than 50 students and staff members at Waiakea High School treated for headaches, nausea, vomiting, respiratory problems and eye irritation after inhaling chlorine gas during science project. April 28, 1998.

Wailuku, Hawaii: A 16-yearold boy undergoes eye surgery after a high school chemistry experiment exploded at Lahainaluna High School. March 18, 1998.


Preparation Keeps Twin City Science Labs Safe

By Rebecca Loda


Preparation is the key to avoiding accidents in science labs, according to Twin City school officials.

"The teachers go through a lot of preparation prior to a lab, and safety is one of the biggest topics covered," said Bloomington High School Principal Barry Reilly. "There's a lot of initial preparation to make sure safety is an issue."

He thinks accidents are more likely to happen in shop classes or physical education classes than in a science lab. Reilly could not recall any major accidents occurring in a science lab during his tenure at the school.

Procedures in each laboratory experiment emphasize safety; agreed Normal Community High School Associate Principal Bob Freeman, who also does not recall any major accidents at NCHS.

All labs contain safety equipment, and students are required to wear goggles.

Every precaution is taken when working with anything potentially dangerous, and the experiments or demonstrations are very controlled, he said.

Dave Johnson, an assistant principal at Normal Community West High School and science department leader, said students there sign a safety contract that covers "major do's and don'ts" before working in the labs.

He, too, said the school has not had any major accidents, adding, "I think one of the key things is the training of our teachers."

At a recent spring institute day Johnson said, a representative from Flinn Scientific Inc., which supplies schools with chemicals and supplies, spoke to teachers about safety.

University High School Principal Gary O'Malley said he's not sure a rise in accidents can be linked to increased teaching standards and more lab work. .

Like other officials, he said common sense and preparation are key.

"The more hands-on, the more opportunities there are for accidents, but you just have to be, as a teacher, more vigilant," said Tom Holbrook, chairman of U High's science department.

He had to reach back about two decades to recall an accident that resulted in a student receiving stitches.

Holbrook said U High students also sign safety contracts and also take safety tests. Each year also starts with discussions on the topic.