Friday, October 30, 2015

Rainbow flame incident injures 5 students in Virginia

I shouldn't be surprised at this story, but I am. 5 students and 1 teacher were injured at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, VA this morning. (click here to hear the description from a student)
What I find most frustrating about this is that it sounds exactly like the Beacon School incident in New York in December 2013. It is the combination of:
  • fire
  • methanol being added to the flames
  • from a bulk methanol container with
  • students being too close
that has caused injuries and teachers getting fired* and lawsuits being filed in this country time and time again. 

Another reminder that the American Chemical Society's Committee on Chemical Safety specifically asks teachers to "Stop Using the Rainbow Demonstration." 


  1. If the American Association of Chemistry Teachers, a recent creation of the ACS for high school chemistry teachers, isn't getting this same message out, they definitely should be. Not that all HS chemistry teachers in the U.S. (over 30,000 if memory serves) are AACT members, but it's a place to start.

    1. It's at least on their blog:

    2. Good to know; thanks, CJ.

    3. Bryan - I am the High School Ambassador for the AACT and 'we' have certainly been doing what we can in terms of getting the word out, including the blog post and the associated webinar. However, this is clearly something that needs to be a fundamental part of the PD and other 'training' that school districts are offering their chemistry teachers. There needs to be a much clearer, specific set of directives at that level.

  2. Frankly, I am a bit surprised that someone would even attempt this given the fairly recent incidents that have occurred. I suppose it could be the "the other person didn't know what they were doing, but I do" sort of thinking

  3. I live in DC, and this story led the local news this evening. It's almost inconceivable that this experiment would still be used in the classroom, or at least still be performed in a risky manner.

  4. I reside in Lake Ridge...& it was certainly the headline story tonight. Two airlifted to burn centers...3 more treated & released. Sophmores speaking of how neither the teacher nor the students were wearing safety gear. Im a geologist ...not a chemist...and even I am aware of this experiment and how important it is to use a pipette instead of adding methanol from the stock container. Im saddened that this teacher did not understand to do this (or cut corners). There are so many previous mishaps...surely the teacher would have informed herself about the dangers a bit better as to prevent any mishaps. Smh.

  5. Seriously, how do we get the word out about how dangerous this experiment is? It just doesn't seem to be getting spread wide enough.

    1. The word is out. It is not about what we say, it is about what others hear. Not much in our daily life or in our education prepares us to internalize the idea of risk resulting from our behavior.

      We glorify the idea of "getting away" with something, which is really glorification of mindlessness. Mindlessness and disregard for risk is so much easier to cultivate than mindfulness. This is even easier in an environment where we have to worry constantly about existential threats - evaluations, layoffs, judgments.

      To successfully navigate this environment and recognize risks in a showoff demonstration we must be calm and mindful of what may happen. It is not easy to internalize these ideas and set aside our anxiety or contempt for them.

      "Mindlessness is pervasive" - Ellen Langer

  6. I can't wait for the super helpful comments about how many times the teacher had performed this demo without a catastrophe happening.

  7. My name is Calais Weber Biery, and I have been following stories such as these ever since my own injury from this experiment nearly ten years ago. I have been fighting to raise awareness and prevent these kinds of tragedies from happening, but it's been very slow moving; each time something like this happens, the media is interested for a week or two and then nothing comes of it. I have followed your blog posts around these incidents and I wanted to reach out to say that I appreciate your coverage of it more than I can say. It is so important that chemists such as yourself continue the discussion if this is to ever be stopped.

    1. You are welcome. Thank you for being willing to share your story.

    2. Can you contact me by e-mail, if possible?

      If you're not interested, I understand.

    3. I appreciate you joining the discussion. I do bring up your injury along with those of others (such as Sheri Sangji) in my class: we never set fire to volatile liquids, polyester clothes and other flammable items are not to be worn on lab day. To me, the major mystery is where teachers like yours ever thought the Rainbow demo was ever a good idea. They must have learned it somewhere. I didn't go to college for education, I'm a former research chemist who got into teaching later in life, so I have no clue who is telling people to set methanol on fire in classrooms. We use Bunsen burners for flane tests because that's what Bunsen burners are for, and I would like to find out why teachers have been taught otherwise.

    4. Hi Calais

      'After The Rainbow' is now an annual presentation to my classes, not necessarily specifically for the benefit of the kids in the context of flame tests, but as a sobering reminder to ME of my own responsibilities and vulnerabilities. We are all subject to potential dangers, and accidents can happen even with the most careful considerations, but it is tragic that this particular experiment continues to be the source of so much heartache given the warnings that have been posted about it.

      Be well.

  8. As a current high school chemistry teacher, I can say a big part of the problem is that many of the new "chemistry" teachers have little background in chemistry. School districts will hire anyone who has a "science certification" to teach chemistry and that can include those with biology degrees, kinesiology, etc.. in order to fulfill coaching requirements. Most administrators don't care about academics, just athletics at the high school level. It's a very sad state in the American public education system these days.

  9. I just cannot understand why they don't use a Bunsen burner and a spatula or wire with metal salts on. Heck, it's probably easier to see what's happening. If there are no gas lines, spirit lamps are very affordable. Warnings of this demo need to be part of training or prof development for all science teachers if you ask me. It's just so avoidable.

  10. Perhaps local ACS sections could write an email about the risks of this demonstration and send it to each high school principal in their region with the request that the principal forward it to all chemistry teachers in the school.

    This is an outreach activity that could make a significant and measurable impact.

  11. If you think that kids should be exposed to potential risk in lab demos because the pedagogical benefits are greater than the risks, then you ought to make sure that you don't take stupid risks (ones that can be easily avoided without harming the point of the demo) - otherwise, people are going to assume that the people who advocate risk tolerance don't know what they're doing or talking about. Pouring flammable liquids in large amounts near open flames would seem to be in that category.

  12. The message shouldn't be "don't do the rainbow flame demo ever" - it should be "make damn sure you understand how the demo went wrong elsewhere, and how to do it in a safe manner."

    1. The message should be "weigh all known risks and benefits". There is no need to ban the rainbow flame experiment any more than banning dropping rocks on your big toe. Neither one has significant benefits and both carry large (and painful) risks. Doing this experiment in a safe manner is as likely as safely dropping that rock on a foot in a steel toe shoe - some rocks are just heavier than others....

      Accidents happen when we disregard risks and oversell benefits. Don't.

    2. The analogy you are making, IMO, is not analogous. Everybody who holds a large rock knows the potential for toe injury, 100% correlation. OTOH, there are a large number of people who are performing this demonstration who think they completely understand the risks, but really dont, so there is not a good correlation between people doing the demo and knowledge to do it safely (needless to say). These naive teachers are dangerous. If you cannot teach these teachers, then they will continue to injure bothers unless the whole demo is banned.

      Why do teachers not understand? I think for me it could be I might underestimate the ability of MeOH to form an explosive aerosol in the container with air. If, on the OTOH, if you think of MeOH like gasoline, then the danger becomes clear.

    3. Yes, the rock analogy fails when we rely on common knowledge and common sense to gauge educated risks. A chemistry teacher (or any teacher) needs to be a somewhat mindful. A science class is a lesson in observation rather than in flash and bang. There is nothing wrong with tying learning with performance as long as learning comes first.

      Presumably the MeOH bottle was recent, commercial, and correctly labeled. A mindful person (a science teacher) who carefully looked around a gas station would notice similar labeling on that bottle. That should cause the teacher to pause and consider the risk of using MeOH even if he never actually learned about the properties of methanol.

      At the level of high school teaching I do expect reading signage to be as common as knowledge of rocks and steel toe shoes.

      As to the idea of understanding the risks, I think that just considering risk leads to really bad decisions. What I expect a mindful person to do is to compare the risks to the benefits of this demonstration. In the absence of gut level rejection of the demonstration the benefits (tiny) provide a counterbalance. In its absence it is all too easy to reject large risk as behavior modifier. This is especially important for risks that are of low probability and high consequence.

      The consideration of benefits is a bridge between the every-day gut feel and the world of educated risk.

      P.S. On a very different note, a school district is an employer whose employees (teachers) use hazardous chemicals (MeOH). The school district purchased (or at lest stored) that MeOH with the explicit intent for that MeOH to be used by the teacher. This creates a requirement for the district to ensure training of that teacher in HazCom and safe use. Lack of knowledge in the chain of command at the school district is not an excuse for the lack of teacher training.

  13. "A mindful person (a science teacher) who carefully looked around a gas station would notice similar labeling on that bottle."

    I disagree. Some people would, but many "mindful" individuals who have gone to college chemistry class but have not, say, worked with equipment using gasoline would not. Its one thing to imagine an alcohol spilled on a table and accidently set on fire; it takes more imagination to see it vaporizing into aerosol in a container to produce a highly explosive mix. I think that's the problem-- people with BS in Chem or Bio can see the former, but may not be able to make the jump to the later.

    Also:I suspect the environment makes you less mindful than you would be in a quiet lab. Probably doesnt help that high school teachers are probably feel rushed and stressed, even though they want to excite their students with a cool demo. If you are moving fast, telling Bobby to STFU its easier to not be mindful.

    1. Re: teachers' stress - we are on the same page. See my response to Unstable Isotope above.

      Re: imagining a scenario - I have to disagree. The HazCom signs on that bottle would say that MeOH is flammable. This is all the teacher needs to analyze risk at this stage.

      Just opening this bottle exposes the teacher and the students to the risk of flammability. The teacher needs to stop analyzing risk at this point. The next stage _must_ be the benefit analysis. The teacher needs to establish the benefit of the demonstration. If the benefit is clear, within the scope of the the mission (that would be teaching chemistry), and significant then there may be a second stage of risk analysis - scenarios, weighing probabilities and effects etc.

      Most teachers would not be equipped for that second stage and they don't need to be. Since the benefits are tiny, their comparison to just the risk listed on the bottle automatically stops the demonstration.

      BTW, doing the easy thing is not necessarily mindful. Most often it is actually mindless.

    2. I don't find labels and SDS's to be as useful as they could be, mostly because they cry wolf too often and don't distinguish between moderate risks and insane ones. Go over to Aldrich and take a quick glance at the SDS's for methyl acrylate and methyl mercury, for example. Do you really expect someone with moderate levels of training to quickly discern which of those is standard-laboratory-annoying vs which is holy-crap-if-I-mess-up-I-die?

      When 90% of the stuff in the lab is labelled "flammable", none of it may as well be.

    3. What Chad said.

      I don't know many *chemists* who diligently read the warning labels on the sides of their solvent bottles, let alone take them seriously -- there was an article awhile back, IIRC, which pointed out that so many labels overplay the risks of most chemicals that it's hard for chemists to tell what is and what isn't actually dangerous. If you handed me a chemical I've never worked with before, I'll probably read the warning label, but I'd be just as likely to read the label for sodium chloride as I would for methanol.

    4. MSDS have generally been written for the benefit of companies and lawyers, not users, but I assumed that the hazard codes (in the diamond) were independently assigned or vetted.

      If you're going to light something on fire, you should probably treat it as flammable. If it has any decent vapor pressure or smell, and it's going to be burned, you should probably assume that you can get a fire from it over a wider area than the spill (because the vapor will spread farther and burn faster if there's an ignition source sufficient to ignite it). These recognitions don't seem to require particular chemical knowledge or understanding of safety hazards, but thoughtfulness.

    5. In my opinion, unless you have seen it, you probably wont think of it. While most people have seen a flammable liquid catch on fire, few have seen one explode. If you saw MeOH or gasoline vapor explode that you will probably will remember not to do the demo in a way that can cause the explosion.

      Since people have trouble anticipating events they have not seen, then the demo, IMO, should be banned so that the ignorant won't hurt anybody.

    6. Chad, LZ,

      The trouble with the SDS/label argument is that it only considers the hazard. It is easy to consider and dismiss hazards as overblown.

      We dismiss risk when we don't have a reference point or emotional attachment to it. A "gut feeling" is an emotional attachment to the risk. It is hard to get attached to a label on a bottle.

      Benefits of the experiment give that reference point. Little benefit - no need to judge and dismiss risk.

  14. I think a question might be whether there is a lower-risk way to achieve the same ends - to show the students neat colors and to correlate them to atomic properties (and potentially to enchant them with chemistry). Given that there is (there alternate ways to do the demo - small amounts of solutions, pre dry the sticks with metal salts soaked in them), it doesn't seem like there's a compelling reason to do the rainbow flame experiment as these teachers did it. The derisking of chemistry education is a red herring - I don't think people are saying "don't take any risks" but "don't take stupid risks". Pouring large amounts of flammable liquids near an open flame? That seems like a stupid risk to me.

    1. Not even. Just go to Wal-Mart and get some 'craft sticks' and soak them in distilled water overnight. This gets them nice and wet and removes most of the impurities (such as sodium) which might interfere with colored flames.

      The kids just turn on Bunsen burners, adjust them for a nice rumbling flame, grab a wet craft stick and pick up a few grains of solid analyte, put it in the flame, and viola. For extra fun do this in a dark room and have observers look at the flame through handheld spectroscopes.

      The main safety precaution here is a large beaker, 2/3rds full of water, named the 'oh crap' beaker. This is where splints go after use, especially if they happen to catch fire.

      I mean you CAN use Nichrome wire, if you don't have any you can just buy a used toaster at a thrift shop and let the kids tear it to bits (PROTIP: cut the power cord off first) - but the wooden splints work pretty damned good. Main precaution is not to heat them until they smoke, because wood smoke may cause asthma attacks in susceptible people.

  15. Produce a video of the demonstration. This would eliminate danger to the class yet allow the flame colors to be seen. Atomic emission spectators of solutions of single salts and mixtures could also be shown.

    I like the idea of Anonymous (11/1/2015, 12:51 AM) of ACS local sections sending e-mails about the demo to high school principals.

  16. Follow up articles on this.

    This one has comments by former Virginia State Superintendent for Public Instruction Dr. Jo Lynne DeMary, Fairfax County Fire Chief Richard Bowers, U.S. Chemical Safety Board member Kristen Kulinowski, National Science Teachers Association’s executive director Dr. David Evans, and mentions the video on the Rainbow experiment by the Safety Board.

    In the following, a team of three reporters at the Washington Post writes a follow up. The Washington Post has not done an article on the Rainbow Flame previously that I know of (before this incident), but since Fairfax is only 15 miles from DC, this time it got their attention.
    Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Karen Garza announced the open-flame ban in an e-mail to parents late Monday afternoon, and the school system said it is poised to conduct a thorough review of the county’s science curriculum and its safety guidance to science teachers. The county also plans to require safety updates for all science teachers by the end of the semester.

    “We will do everything we possibly can to ensure that this never happens again,” Garza wrote.
    Ken Roy, chief science safety compliance adviser for the National Science Teachers Association and a former high school physics teacher, warned that if the ban is long term, it could put Fairfax County students academically behind. He said there’s a growing expectation that college-bound students, particularly those who want to study science, have experience handling open flames in laboratories.

    Ken Roy says that use of fire should not be outlawed. It is all in how it is used. Students need to learn to work with hazardous materials safely.

    It is hard to know how many principals or superintendents have seen news stories on this topic when an incident happens and took preventive action such as training teachers so this does not happen. Presumably some watch the news and then a light bulb goes off. Or maybe a safety minded teacher who sees such a story and brings it up with the supe. Didn't happen in Fairfax.

    Superintendent Karen Garza was serving in her current position since before the incident at Beacon High School in Manhattan right after New Year's in January 2014:
    "Dr. Karen Garza has served as Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) since July 1, 2013"

    Manhattan, New York is less than 210 miles from Fairfax, Virginia. There must be a certain reservoir of education professionals who are not news junkies, or more would know about such issues.

    1. I am sorry to see this kind of development yet again. The litmus test of mishandling safety is the presence of:

      "never again"

      in a politician's speech. To me the pedestrian meaning of this phrase is:

      "I will make enough people miserable and waste enough public money to delay any accidents until after I have a new job".

      Accidents will happen. Always. The effective goal of a risk/benefit analysis is to reduce the chance of an accident. Getting to "never again" requires invoking supernatural powers. Obviously, Karen Garza wants us to believe that those powers owe her one.

  17. I have been taken to task for this phrase but submit that it is absolutely correct: People change when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same. Clearly the pain of change has not been sufficiently high in light of these incidents for science educators to change their ways and learn proper chemical safety practices. Perhaps if the individual and their employer were held accountable and made the answer for the for the injuries, then that would gather some attention throughout the secondary education community.

    1. This is a very sad observation. I hope there is a bit more to change than just pain.

      The accountability is a complicated idea here. If the teacher was told not to do this experiment, or clearly knew that this experiment caused injuries before, and still decided to do it, then yes, let's throw the book at her.

      On the other hand if she wasn't qualified, trained, or supervised effectively then she should be removed from teaching but the responsibility and consequences should belong to the superintendent.

      Both scenarios are going to be difficult to prove.

    2. SJ - It may be a sad observation, but in my 50+ years of seeing all kinds of stuff all over the world, it's one of those simple truths of mankind. I'm not being cynical - it's just an observation.

      In actuality, it is not difficult to demonstrate either of those scenarios. It just takes time and data.

    3. I was thinking about time and data (= money) when I wrote the difficulty. A lot depends on how much is Karen Garza in need of throwing the teacher under the bus.

      As to pain = change, in my observation the change resulting from pain tends to revert or shift as soon as the pain eases. The pain is applied from outside so it needs some energy (= money as well) to sustain. As soon as the finances are "reformed", "streamlined", or whatever that money vanishes and so does pain. Accidents increase soon after.

      Effective risk mitigation has to be self-sustaining. When the risk is brought on by humans self-awareness or mindfulness is the only way to reduce the risk long term. Knowledge and training come second because the conclusions they bring must be readily internalized to be effective. Mindless minds are not receptive to that.

  18. An editorial in the October issue of the Journal of Chemical Education mentions the rainbow demonstration as a suitable one for National Chemistry Week. A photo of the flames is included.

    1. Nice pictures. The sponges are in principle a step forward from refillable bowls. Still, I can imagine dipping a flaming sponge in a beaker of methanol to "refill".

      Those sponges could be prepared commercially and shipped soaked in MeOH and individually sealed in vac packs. When there isn't a bottle with methanol around there is less chance of a refilling.

      Salt soaked solid fuel tablets could also work, maybe those made from metaldehyde (META tablets) or trioxane. Hexamine is probably out of the question.

  19. Follow up articles on this.

    Moriah Balingit of the Washington Post has written another article. Moriah was on the team of 3 reporters who have written about this incident.

    Reporters are reduced to quoting students:
    "According to students who said they were in the class at Woodson..."

    School and fire department officials are not talking about exactly what happened, perhaps out of concern about possible lawsuits. Also it does not make them look good when it comes out that this demonstration was done in an unsafe manner although there have been plenty of warnings about it from news reports and from the American Chemical Society and from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and other sources and sites.

    IN THE YEAR 2000
    Moriah has found that a similar incident was reported in his newspaper 15 years ago in "METRO IN BRIEF" at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C. The original report did not include the term "rainbow flame".

    "Two students at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., were burned in 2000 when a “rainbow flame”-type experiment caused a small explosion. The students performing the experiment mistakenly ignited a beaker of methyl alcohol."

    There are reports of a new demonstration video by the American Chemical Society about how the demonstration can be done safely.
    A safer way to demonstrate the ‘rainbow flame’ in the classroom (video)
    WASHINGTON, Nov. 11, 2015
    A Safer 'Rainbow Flame' Demo For Chemistry Classrooms
    Mon, 11/16/2015 - 3:51pm
    Meagan Parrish, Editor

  20. Another Rainbow Flame type at St. Catharine Academy in the Bronx involving "a procedure that involved alcohol and a metal when the flame got out of control". "“The flame got a little larger than was anticipated..."

    Sister Patricia Wolf is president of the school.

    "Sister Wolf said there were no hazardous materials involved in the experiment..." There you have it. Flammable solvents are not hazardous.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20