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Chris Williams, Associated Press, Published December 11 2011

Lab demonstration gone wrong raises questions

MINNEAPOLIS – A science demonstration that went bad in a Maple Grove middle school this month has drawn attention to the fact that there’s little official oversight of experiments in classroom labs.

Four students were burned, including one seriously, when a teacher poured a small amount of methanol, or wood alcohol, into a 5-gallon plastic jug and ignited the fumes, causing a fire larger than he expected. The teacher has been put on leave while the accident is investigated.

The “whoosh bottle” demonstration, as it’s commonly known, shows up several times in one national database of lab accidents. And the National Science Teachers Association’s guidelines on lab safety discourage the use of methanol in such a way because of its volatility.

But those guidelines are little more than suggestions. And John Olson, the science specialist with the Minnesota Department of Education, said there are no state codes for classroom science demonstrations, nor any state-level auditing to make sure school districts enforce any guidelines they adopt from the science teachers association and similar groups.

“It’s pretty much voluntary at this point,” he said. “There’s not anybody who comes around and looks at instruction practices.”

Two of the four Maple Grove Junior High students were back in class last week, Osseo Area Schools spokeswoman Barbara Olson said. She said she couldn’t comment on the investigation.

The most seriously burned student, 15-year-old Dane Neuberger, was discharged from a hospital last weekend. His father de­clined to be interviewed.

Experts say science teachers often aren’t provided with the training and equipment they need to make demonstrations as safe as they could be.

Ken Roy, the safety consultant for the National Science Teachers Association and the director of health and safety for the public schools in Glastonbury, Conn., said he didn’t have firsthand knowledge of the Maple Grove incident, but he would ask if the students were kept a safe distance from the demonstration and behind a clear safety shield. Olson, the district spokeswoman, said a safety shield is shared among the science classrooms in the school but wouldn’t comment on if it was used in the accident.

“You need to have that barrier; that’s absolutely critical,” Roy said, adding that school districts around the country often fail to put them in their school laboratories because of the expense.

In addition to asking about training and safety shields, Roy said parents should question their school administrators about how many students are being put into each lab. Overcrowding can result in students jostling each other while handling dangerous chemicals, and make supervision difficult for teachers.

The local fire marshal will inspect buildings and the storage of chemicals. Federal Office of Safety and Health Administration rules require districts to provide employees who handle dangerous materials with the training and equipment to protect themselves.

James Kaufman, president of the nonprofit Laboratory Safety Institute, said there were no government agencies that track all injuries in laboratories. However, he has been gathering anecdotal accounts of them since 1973. His database now includes more than 5,000 incidents in middle school, high school, college and commercial labs going back to 1904.

“Everything we do has some inherent danger associated with it,” Kaufman said. “If it’s done properly, it’s not a problem. If it’s done improperly, it’s a problem.”

Parents’ questions can help make labs safer

MINNEAPOLIS – Experts say there’s little oversight over what happens in classroom laboratories, which is often overlooked until there’s an accident like the one early this month that burned four students

in Maple Grove.

However, National Science Teachers Association safety consultant Ken Roy says parents can make school labs safer by asking a few simple questions of their local school administrators, including:

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