Author(s): Andrew Minister. Published on September 1, 2015.

ACROSS THE COUNTRY, students in school science classrooms and other laboratory settings are being burned and injured when accidents occur during science demonstrations.

Over the last 15 years, according to media accounts, scores of students have been injured or burned in dozens of these demonstrations; the actual number of incidents, as well as the number of students injured, are likely much higher. Many of the injured students suffer second- and third-degree burns on their faces and upper bodies. The burn injuries are very painful, the recovery is long and agonizing over many months or years, and victims can be scarred physically and mentally for life.

Last September, for example, 13 people, most of them children, were injured during a science demonstration at the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum in Reno, Nevada. Authorities and museum officials said that a mixture of methyl alcohol and boric acid—components of a routine exhibition conducted daily that creates a whirling “fire tornado” effect—exploded in a flash fire, burning viewers on their hands, arms, and faces.


Dane Neuberger, a ninth grader in Minnesota who was one of four students burned in a science demonstration involving methanol. "My face was actually on fire," he told local media. Photograph: RICHARD TSONG TAATARII/Minneapolis Start Tribune

Twelve days after the Reno incident, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) issued a statement from Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso warning of the dangers of performing demonstrations using flammable liquids near students—the same day four students were burned in a science demonstration at a high school in Denver, Colorado. At least five additional events that have occurred since last September where students have been burned and injured by science demonstrations. One of the most recent occurred in Florida in May, when two high school students were hospitalized following a demonstration conducted by a teacher in an AP chemistry class.

The Absolute Priority

U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) issued a safety bulletin entitled “Key Lessons for Preventing Incidents from Flammable Chemicals in Educational Demonstrations.”

CSB safety recommendations for science demonstrations.

Every one of these events could have been prevented. With that goal in mind, changes to the latest edition of NFPA 45, Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals, were made with the idea of eliminating these hazards from classrooms and other laboratory settings. The number of events that were occurring showed the committee on Laboratories Using Chemicals, which oversees NFPA 45, that the standard needed requirements for additional protection for students in laboratories where demonstrations were being performed. A task group prepared requirements for the 2015 edition of NFPA 45, which was published last November. At about the safe time, the CSB issued a safety bulletin, “Key Lessons for Preventing Incidents from Flammable Chemicals in Educational Demonstrations”. By following the requirements of NFPA 45 and the lessons provided by the CSB, and by exercising caution and common sense in laboratory settings, schools and teachers can prevent these incidents that have resulted in injury and trauma to hundreds of students.

The lure of the wow factor

Stories of students being burned in lab fires are not new, but a number of high-profile incidents in recent years have brought a new awareness to the problem.

In 2006, three students in Ohio were injured when methanol exploded during a high school chemistry class demonstration. (After the Rainbow, a video produced in 2013 by the CSB, focused on one of the students, Calais Weber, who sustained burns over 40 percent of her body and spent more than two months in a hospital burn unit.) Another occurred in 2011, when four students at a junior high school in Minnesota were burned in a science demonstration. “My face was actually on fire,” one of the injured students told a local television station. The student said the demonstration went awry when the teacher “took a jug of methanol and dropped a match in there. That’s like the last I know.” The CSB highlighted the issue of lab safety in a 2011 safety video called Experimenting with Danger, reporting that at least 150 students had been seriously injured in school laboratory accidents in the previous four years.

Teachers understandably want to make learning about science fun and exciting, and chemistry teachers in particular have perpetuated a long tradition of wow-factor demonstrations involving fire. When such demonstrations are performed, students, being naturally curious, want to see what’s happening up close, and they gather around the bench to see the changes that are occurring. In most incidents where students are injured, there is no barrier to protect them. Teachers often do not require that students wear personal protective equipment (PPE) such as goggles and aprons during these demonstrations, even though such equipment might be required during student lab work. Many teachers are also inadequately trained in lab safety procedures.

There is often a large amount of flammable alcohol present. Many of these events have been related to the use of methyl alcohol (methanol), a highly flammable liquid that burns with little visible flame, and many of the demonstrations have involved one-gallon bottles of methanol. Accidents occur when the demonstration isn’t working as the teacher planned, or when the students want to see the demonstration again. A bottle of methanol is opened to pour more of the liquid into a dish or beaker that contains an active flame; the flame ignites the methanol vapor and the fire flashes back into the bottle, spraying the burning methanol out of the bottle and onto the nearby students. While other types of science lab incidents result in burns, chemical inhalation exposures, and other injuries for students and teachers, the proximity of unprotected students to fire demonstrations often results in some of the worst incidents in terms of the numbers of students involved and the severity of their injuries.

Calais footCCCMYKopt
Tattoo on Weber's foot of the molecular structure of methanol. Photograph: United States Chemical Safety Board.

The new requirements in Chapter 12 of NFPA 45 are retroactive to all schools and apply to the performance of science demonstrations using hazardous materials. The requirements include instructor responsibilities, chemical handling and storage requirements, and controls for the performance of demonstrations. The requirements below are similar to the requirements that the CSB recommended last October.

» Teachers are required to perform a hazard risk assessment prior to performing each demonstration. The assessment will identify the hazards associated with the demonstration, the prudent practices needed to minimize the risk, the PPE needed for the instructor and the students, safety equipment needed for the demonstration, and emergency procedures. Teachers need to be trained and knowledgeable in fire safety procedures, school emergency procedures, appropriate use of PPE, and how to conduct hazard risk assessments. Teachers need to train their students annually on the school’s emergency and fire prevention plans, including procedures for extinguishing clothing fires.

Laboratory Safety Resources
    Science Demonstrations: Safety and Liability, a Laboratory Safety Institute publication by James A. Kaufman. 
    Chemical Safety for Teachers and Their SupervisorsĀ­—Grades 7-12, ACS Publication 2001, Chemical Science Safety in the Classroom, National Chemistry Week and Community Activity Safety Guidelines, and ACS Guidelines and Recommendations for the Teaching of High School Chemistry, 2012, publications of the American Chemical Society. 
    School Chemistry Laboratory Safety Guide, a 2006 publication of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. 
    Enviro-Health Links—Laboratory Safety, information developed by the National Institutes of Health. 
    Safe Handling of Alcohol in the Laboratory, an article published by the National Science Teachers Association. 
    Science Safety—Making the Connection, information developed by the Council of State Science Supervisors.

» The requirements for handling and storing chemicals in school labs include storing and handling bulk quantities of chemicals in a separate room outside of the classroom. Chemicals that will be used in the classroom will be prepared before the students arrive and pre-apportioned in sealed containers or eye-dropper bottles in the amount that is needed for each demonstration. Chemicals that are not in use need to be locked in appropriate storage cabinets.

» Demonstrations that involve open flames, fire, or the use of flammable, reactive, toxic, or corrosive chemicals must be performed with a barrier or adequate separation between the students and the demonstration. Demonstrations that produce hazardous amounts of gas, vapor, fumes, or particulates must be performed in a chemical fume hood or with other types of ventilation that will protect the students from the hazard. Many laboratory vendors provide demonstration-type chemical fume hoods and demonstration enclosures that allow the students to watch the demonstration without being exposed to the hazard. Other demonstrations performed on benchtops need to be performed behind a transparent barrier or with at least 10 feet of separation between the students and the demonstration. Lower-cost demonstration hoods/enclosures and benchtop shields are available that allow students to watch the chemical reactions without being exposed to the hazard if something goes wrong.

» So that students will be able to get out of the lab quickly, demonstrations must be performed in a location that will not block access to the exit(s) from the laboratory.

It is widely understood that many school districts around the country operate with very limited budgets and cannot afford to buy new equipment for their labs and provide the necessary training for their teachers. While it is important to acknowledge those limitations, we cannot afford to burn any more students in science demonstrations. These accidents are preventable. There are many organizations that provide low-cost training materials and safety programs for school science programs, including the Laboratory Safety Institute (LSI), an international nonprofit education organization for laboratory safety that provides low-cost laboratory safety training and reference materials for schools. The Laboratories Using Chemicals committee has worked with the LSI to review the new requirements to NFPA 45.

The new requirements in NFPA 45 will only be effective if the standard is adopted by the state and local fire departments. If NFPA 45 is not adopted in its entirety, at a minimum the operational requirements in Chapters 6, 11, and 12 of NFPA 45 need to be adopted to provide safe practices in all laboratories, especially for K–12 magic shows, demonstrations, and laboratory activities. After adopting NFPA 45, the fire marshals, fire inspectors, and science teachers need to be trained on the new requirements to improve the safety of laboratory demonstrations.

By working together to implement these safety controls, we will be able to protect our students from being seriously injured in the event of an accident involving flammable liquids or hazardous chemicals. There is no reason for students to be burned while watching science demonstrations.

ANDREW MINISTER is a chief fire protection engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, and chair of NFPA's committee on Laboratories Using Chemicals.