Flash Factor Not Worth the Danger

Flash Factor Not Worth the Danger

BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY  Seniors Shivani Sharma, Katherine Magee and junior Holly Haley don safety goggles in an Organic Chemistry class to ensure lab safety. Photo by Mary Clare Beytagh
Seniors Shivani Sharma, Katherine Magee and junior Holly Haley don safety goggles in an Organic Chemistry class to ensure lab safety. Photo by Mary Clare Beytagh

After a Jan. 2 chemical explosion at Beacon High School in Manhattan, Science Department Chair Dr. Marshall Bartlett was in disbelief. “Why would any­one pour methanol on an open flame out of a gallon jug?” he asked. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Bartlett shared this reaction with many of his colleagues. Upper School chemis­try teachers Dr. Beverly Lawson and Ann Ojeda were similarly shocked.

In part because they could not believe such an inexperienced teach­er would try to do a flammable ex­periment outside a ventilated hood. In part because they would never use methanol as an accelerant. And in part because a major accident like the one in New York has never hap­pened at Hockaday in the 28 years Lawson has taught.

Skin lacerations, eye burns, chemical spills and even explosions are ever-present dangers in a chem­istry lab. In Hockaday’s portable labs, however, safety is the most impor­tant thing, Lawson said.

Lawson, who describes herself as a stickler about goggles, passed on her experience to Ojeda, who was a part of the lab safety team at Texas A&M University and is now in her third year of teaching chemis­try at Hockaday.

“It’s incum­bent on teach­ers who have more experi­ence in the lab to share that with younger teachers,” Law­son said. “I think every program is im­proved by having younger people with lots of energy and enthusiasm come in, but I think that the experi­ence factor, especially as far as safety is concerned, is important.”

Ojeda requires her students to wear goggles and aprons after they cross the pylon, the beam in the chemistry portable that divides the classroom space from the lab space.

“And if they don’t,” Ojeda said, “I’m right there to holler at them.”

Ojeda and Lawson have teamed up to teach organic chemistry this year, which involves some more haz­ardous organic chemicals. The lab safety expectations, however, have not changed.

Senior Catherine McGeoch, who has previously taken chemistry and AP Chemistry, is in the organic chemistry class this year. “Part of our proposal is about how we are going to be safe with the chemicals we are using,” she said. In other words, in or­der to write the required lab propos­als before beginning experiments, the students must look up the mate­rial data safety sheet (MSDS) for each chemical.

Lawson said that some younger, more inexperienced teachers con­duct more showy experiments to get their students excited about science.

“As a teacher,” Ojeda said, “I nev­er want to do anything just for the shock value. I want it to tie into what we’re doing, so you have to have a mastery of the chemistry.”

One of the more famous flashy experiments done in Hockaday chemistry, dubbed the Gummy Bear Experiment, involves potassium chlorate and a gummy bear, which together produce bright fire and a caramel-like smell as the sugar burns. Lawson and Ojeda said they always take proper precautions such as performing the experiment in a flame hood to reduce the asso­ciated risks such as burns or fume inhalation.

Other experiments, however, have been phased out of the curricu­lum because of the unnecessary haz­ards they pose to students. One such experiment, called the Ammonium Dichromate Volcano, used a little bit of ethanol (not as flammable as methanol) to burn the chemicals. Be­cause the experiment uses hexava­lent chromium, a known carcinogen, Lawson determined it was not worth the risk.

“We’re much more con­scious of safety now than we were a generation ago,” Lawson said as she described her high school chemistry teacher, whose arms were covered in scars from lab accidents, “but some of those old experiments and demon­strations are still around.”

At Hockaday, the Physics Department does have a varia­tion of the Rainbow demon­stration, the experiment that caused the explosion at Beacon. However, instead of burning volatile metals using metha­nol, the students burn chemi­cal salts over a propane flame under teacher supervision, which illustrates the same con­cept with less risk.

Bartlett said that the anxi­ety he feels about potential dangers in the lab is the same feeling he has when his own kids do something dangerous.

“Whenever they’re do­ing anything risky, your mind plays out all the worst case sce­narios of what could go wrong,” he said.

In order to educate teach­ers about the potential dangers, all the Science Department faculty in Lower, Middle and Upper Schools completed an online laboratory safety pro­gram last year. The course gave Hockaday a price reduction in the school’s insurance policy.

The portable science build­ings also went through a series of rigorous certifications over the summer. These included a number of regulations that codified spacing between buildings, proper ventilation, wastewater disposal and chem­ical storage. The buildings were laid out in such a way that the AP Chemistry portable, which houses all of the chemicals, is closest to the edge of campus on Welch Road. To meet regu­lations, the architects also in­stalled ventilation ducts that connect the yellow flame cabi­nets directly to the outside.

All organic chemicals, ac­ids and solids are stored ac­cording to storage guidelines from Flinn Scientific, a vendor of science supplies and educa­tional resources.

The fire marshal gave the school only one warning about boxes being stored too close to the ceiling, Lawson said, but the problem was remedied im­mediately.

The only pieces of safety equipment the portable labs do not have are safety showers in the biology and chemistry portables and a prep room in which to store the chemicals. In case of emergency, if a shower were needed, the student would be flushed with water from the sinks, Bartlett said. He assures, however, that the new science building currently under con­struction will have these fea­tures installed.

Still, he believes this em­phasis on safety can coexist with exciting science experiments.

“We want our students to be impressed by the sci­ence,” Bartlett said. “But there’s enough impressive science that you can safely steer clear of the things that are really danger­ous and still have an impres­sive science program.”

– Mary Clare Beytagh