Experimenting with danger

Tuesday, July 9, 2002

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, Ill., 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.

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 standards set by the federal government 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, who chairs an advisory board on science safety for the National Science Teachers Association. "What this means is, you have to have safety concerns as job one, but some schools don't."

And while teachers are protected in the workplace by state laws, students are not covered by those laws. There is little regulation of school labs, and no government or private agency collects official data on accidents that happen there. As a result, the exact number of accidents is unknown.

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

Safety should be priority

Kathy Wright, a chemistry teacher at Central High School, is adamant that her students wear safety goggles and follow proper procedures in their labs. "You can't do a lab unless you wear the safety goggles," she said. And while students dislike the lines and grooves the glasses make on their face, they wear them anyway.

But with new laboratories and new classrooms, safety was a top priority for the school district. In the new high school, which opens for classes in September, there is a separate prep room so that students don't prepare chemicals in front of an entire class. All the materials are stored according to chemical type, not by alphabetical order, Wright said.

Each lab room has safety showers and eyewash stands.

A major part of teachers' jobs is raising their students' awareness that safety is an issue in the labs, said Central principal Mike Cowan. "We've even had to take some precautions just moving and storing the chemicals in the building transfer."

Yet lab accidents 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 federal teaching standards. In Iowa, there were 674 accidents in the three school years from fall 1990 through the spring 1993, but more than 1,000 in the following three 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, from 96 to 245. Gerlovich said he suspects the same thing is happening in other states.

"I think this was the tip of an iceberg," Gerlovich said.

Experiments gone awry

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, arms and legs.

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, Mich. 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, Ill.; 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.

Lack of safety training

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.

Alan Paradise, assistant principal of East Bakersfield High School in California, said he never imagined students were in serious jeopardy in the chemistry lab -- until a glass bottle of methanol exploded three years ago, sending a teacher and 22 students to a hospital with cuts, headaches and nausea. After that, the district began requiring shields and goggles and sent teachers to safety training.

"We had done this demonstration for years and years without problems," Paradise said. "We're fortunate nothing worse happened."

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."

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