DENVER (AP) — Science teachers need more safety training before running dazzling chemical experiments that can result in dangerous flash fires, according to a recommendation Thursday from a federal board charged with investigating such accidents.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board reviewed three fires stemming from science demonstrations during the last two months. The incidents in Nevada, Colorado and Illinois inflicted burns on students and adults when methanol caught fire while an educator was attempting a demonstration.
Federal investigators say the fires had common problems: The demonstrators lacked proper safety training, and they used flammable chemicals in greater quantities than necessary. No safety barriers such as a clear shield were used between the experiment and the audience.
The fires caused painful injuries but no deaths.
The board investigated these blazes:
— 13 people, mostly children, were burned by a methanol-fueled flash fire Sept. 3 during a science demonstration called the "Fire Tornado" at the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum in Reno.
— Four students were injured Sept. 15 during a chemistry-class demonstration at Denver's Science, Math and Arts Academy, a charter high school. A 4-foot jet of fire erupted out of a bottle of methanol and burned one of the students.
— Three Cub Scouts and an adult in Raymond, Illinois, were injured Oct. 20 when a parent poured methanol onto boric acid near an open flame.
A green-colored "Fire Tornado" results from a methanol flame near boric acid, a common ant and roach killer. The safety board says it knows of at least 12 methanol-related fires in science demonstrations since 2000.
"Educators are not aware that the flammable materials used can cause fires that are much more dangerous than a small flame," said Mark Wingard, a board investigator.
The board recounted other flash fires resulting in injury from "Fire Tornado" demonstrations and a similar one called the "Rainbow," in which various chemicals and methanol are used to produce different colored flames.
A "Rainbow" experiment injured children in Ohio in 2006 and New York high school students in January.
Investigators said there's no need to use bulk containers of methanol and other flammable chemicals when small quantities will do. Schools also shouldn't assume that trained chemistry teachers know how to safely run a demonstration.
In the Reno case, a gallon container of methanol ignited, causing a large flash fire, the report said. The container also spilled and burning methanol spread toward the audience. There were no written instructions provided by the museum telling teachers to first pour methanol from the gallon container into a small beaker in a separate room before performing the experiment, the board said.
Only a few milliliters of methanol were needed for the "Fire Tornado," it said.
In Denver, the teacher added methanol from a large container to a small flame — which flashed back into the container and then out about 12 feet, striking a student in the chest, the report said. School administrators wrongly assumed the chemistry teacher was prepared by his college work to run a safe demonstration.
That teacher now faces four counts of misdemeanor assault. Federal investigators said they're not calling for criminal liability for negligent teachers, just better training.
"It's the responsibility of the institution," said Rafael Moure-Eraso, board chairman. "Focusing on individual actions is not the way toward prevention."
In Illinois, methanol was poured from a container onto boric acid near an open flame. The flame raced into the bottle, producing a flash fire that burned the Cub Scouts and an adult, the board said.
Investigators concluded that if schools or education groups aren't equipped to train demonstrators or safely store chemicals, they should consider alternative ways to eliminate fire hazards, such as showing videos.
The board's report is a recommendation only and carries no legal requirement for schools or educational groups.
Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt