The September NFPA Journal Story “Hey Kids Watch This” brought the trend of disastrous science experiments in the U.S. onto my radar. As a former classroom, and fire & life safety educator, the idea of unknowingly putting my trusting student audiences in peril’s way, shook me to the core.
Then just a mere month later, in Fairfax, Virginia, yet another chemistry class blast hit the news. Five students and one teacher were injured as a result of another “rainbow demonstration” in which flammable solvents were used on an open bench in an attempt to examine chemicals as they burned at different light frequencies.
When carried out on an open bench using a flammable solvent, the rainbow demonstration is a high-risk operation. The conditions for a flash fire or deflagration are met—a fuel, oxygen, and a source of ignition. Highly flammable solvents, such as methanol, can produce heavier-than-air vapors that move across surfaces and down toward the floor where they spread undetected among unsuspecting, and often up-close, viewers of the demonstration. Even carrying out this demonstration in a chemical hood poses risks if fuel sources are not controlled, and teachers with a limited understanding of the inherent risks endanger both themselves and their students at unnecessarily.
NFPA engineer Laura Montville joined me recently on the Christal Frost Radio Show to talk about these dangers and what NFPA is doing in response. Laura serves as the staff liaison for the NFPA 45 Standard, the standard for fire protection for laboratories using chemicals, and she highlighted warnings put out in a recent NFPA news release and also a similar one by the Chemical Safety Board (CSB). In December 2013, the CSB released the video “After the Rainbow” that features Calais Weber, a young burn victim of a similar demonstration that was carried out in 2006. The video emphasizes the dangerous risks associated with this demonstration and the need to follow safer practices.
If you are reading this now, I urge you to take a moment to read and pass along the NFPA Lab Fire Safety 101 Tips Sheet to a teacher you know, whether they are a science teacher or that of another subject area. We need to work together to spread this important information to prevent even one more young person, parent, or well-meaning teacher from having to live with the devastating consequences of unsafe science.