Thursday, October 30, 2014

CSB releases recommendations on classroom methanol-related demonstrations

The Chemical Safety Board has released recommendations for classroom demonstrations involving flammable/hazardous materials:
  • The press release
  • The detailed safety bulletin (don't miss the stills of the methanol jug catching on fire) 
    • Calls for safety reviews, PPE for participants, no bulk containers of MeOH near flames when smaller amounts will do.
Calais Weber is the student injured in a fire a few years back; her story was covered in their video (and covered on this blog.) She had a statement this morning at the CSB press conference (emphasis mine): 
While I am now a premed student and have a better understanding of the dangers of methanol from a scientific perspective than I did at fifteen, I think the most valuable thing I can add to the discussion around lab safety is my perspective as a student.  
My chemistry teacher did not intend to injure me or others, just as other teachers who have made the same mistake would never intentionally hurt their students. But she did, and they have. It's easy to say that they were simply being careless and that a more careful teacher would not have made those same mistakes, but I think the real issue is lack of training and knowledge. My teacher was not only unaware of what would happen when she poured a gallon of methanol directly onto and near multiple open flames, but she had no idea how to handle the situation when several of her students were on fire - including her own son.  
It is my belief that until there exists a standard, mandatory protocol for training all science teachers, there is no reason for methanol to be used in classrooms. My education and love for chemistry was not fostered by seeing a demonstration in person, and it would not have been hindered by simply watching a video of it being performed in a controlled setting by trained chemists. All I hope for is to stop other children from being severely injured - I came very close to dying from my injuries, and my greatest fear is that, eventually, there will be a child that won't be as lucky as I was to have survived.
More later.

17 comments:

  1. I quickly read the report and its extremely good. That is good to get out to all Chem teachers. I just wont do any demos with MeOH or other alcohols with low flash points.

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    1. That would keep everyone safe, but I think would be overkill. Looking over that report it seemed all the incidents started when people poured methanol straight from a bottle onto a burning experiment. So two things would probably cut down on these accidents dramatically: a ban on keep four liter bottles of methanol adjacent to anything you plan to light on fire, and once you've lit something on fire or even tried to light it you don't pour any more flammables on it.

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    2. I think TWC's suggestions are quite reasonable. I think that Ms. Weber's specific suggestion that MeOH/flame be banned in the laboratory is a "useful bad idea". It's a bad idea, but if it induces people to self-regulate effectively, it's been useful.

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  2. I agree with TWC's point about large MeOH bottles. Using small volumes is just good lab practice and should be a mandatory part of any demo. Premeasure out only the amount you need for the demo!

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  3. I am going to start doing this demo out of respect for chemistry, and not bowing to the wishes of idiots. It is entirely safe if you do not pour flammable liquids onto something on fire.

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    1. Problems happen when students remember the cool (and safe) demo you did but when they become teachers they just are not as smart as you are to do it right.

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    2. That speaks more to the shortcomings of teacher education. I would argue that chemistry educators should take a specialty chem ed class particularly about demos. I don't know if there's such a thing, there isn't at my institution. I would argue that the standard undergrad curriculum isn't enough to be running these demos on its own.

      The other problem is that it seems people with no real exposure to chemistry are running these with minimal training (The Discovery Institute seemed like it was just volunteers of uncertain background).

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    3. Well, I have heard from a fire marshall that the individuals most likely to cause accidents in Chem Demo's are newly minted Chem BS and PhD students, so education in Chem classes alone is not enough. Chem Ed is a good idea, but who wants to go through that if you have labored with other Ed or Chem classes?

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    4. Clearly what we need is a study that quantifies variables such as training. It a bit precipitous to decide to stop doing all experiments with methanol when it seems the main causes of accidents are things that could be easily avoided.

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    5. I think the problem is that individuals who end up making these mistakes dont think they are the type that do, and so they have a false sense of control and competence (The Dunning-Kruger affect). If that is the case, its not a bad idea for everybody to just stop doing these kind of Demo's, to prevent the .01% that go wrong and can injure someone. Just my opinion.

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    6. Life is a risk. At some point we have to accept risk. Even with all the news stories, I wouldn't be surprised to find that people stand a better chance of being in a car accident. We already have people fearful enough of chemicals as it is. I think that pouring methanol on a burning flame is more than just a false sense of competence. It appears that we will have to agree to disagree. If I should ever be teaching high school chem I will almost certainly use this demo.

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    7. Good for you! Too many people would be concerned about burning children to go ahead with a demo when there are many, many exciting alternatives.

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    8. Nothing like a little exaggeration to start the morning. A properly run rainbow fire experiment is almost certainly less dangerous than driving your child to school. I don't see people exclaiming they're going to stop driving.

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    9. "My chemistry teacher did not intend to injure me or others, just as other teachers who have made the same mistake would never intentionally hurt their students. But she did, and they have. "

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    10. I never said anything about intent. I have no doubt there wasn't any intent to injure anyone. There was negligence though. This demonstration can be conducted safely. You feel it can't be conducted safely enough, I disagree. I don't think we're going to change each others mind on this.

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    11. You literally need the IQ of a turnip to actually have an accident with the rainbow flame demo. Probably for the best the teacher fuck it up and get fired. If this is the level the teacher functions on, who knows what shitty ideas she was putting in the students heads.

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  4. Best education for dangerous things in chem still remains screwing around with fire and explosives as a kid.
    All the best chemists I know did this.

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