Classroom Fires During Science Demonstrations Spark Concern

Safety: Student injuries prompt calls for teachers being trained in risk assessment and for stricter safety precautions

Jyllian Kemsley

A safer way to do flame tests is to soak sticks in aqueous metal salt solutions, then burn the sticks in a Bunsen burner. Credit: ACS


A safer way to do flame tests is to soak sticks in aqueous metal salt solutions, then burn the sticks in a Bunsen burner.
Credit: ACS

Since 2011, at least 72 people—mostly children—have been injured in alcohol-fueled fires ignited during educational demos. The accidents most commonly occur when teachers doing “rainbow” flame demonstrations burn metal salts using methanol as a fuel, then try to add more methanol to prolong the display. A flame demo at a Virginia high school hospitalized two students and injured three more plus a teacher on Oct. 30, according to local media reports.

“One of these days, someone is going to die” from injuries sustained in a chemistry classroom fire, says Calais Weber Biery. Biery herself nearly died after suffering third- and fourth-degree burns over 48% of her body from a flame demo fire in 2006, when she was 15.

“Teachers say, ‘Oh, I’ve done it this way for years and never had a problem,’ ” says Ken Roy, director of environmental health and safety for Glastonbury Public Schools in Connecticut and chief science safety compliance adviser to the National Science Teachers Association. “But they’re underestimating the power of methanol.”

Despite the incidents, Roy and other teaching and safety experts are adamant that schools should not ban demonstrations, hands-on experiments, or even methanol. “Kids need to experience phenomena if they’re going to be engaged and develop understanding,” says Joseph S. Krajcik, a former high school chemistry teacher who is now a science education professor at Michigan State University.

Instead, teachers must stay focused on their educational goals and be clear about how a particular demo or experiment will meet those aims, then determine the safest way to achieve the objectives, experts say. To make that decision, teachers must be trained and required to do hazard analyses and risk assessments prior to demos or labs. They also must take the precautions indicated by those assessments, such as handling chemicals appropriately and using barriers for protection.

To assist educators, C&EN and ACS released an infographic illustrating new National Fire Protection Association guidance for conducting demonstrations and experiments, as well as a video showing a safer way to conduct flame tests. The resources are available at cenm.ag/labdemo.

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