Chemical Demonstration Safety Information at ILPI

This section of our web site is dedicated to stopping the injuries caused by ill-advised chemical demonstrations that utilize flaming liquids such as methanol and ethanol. While these can be performed safely, the required knowledge, preparation, equipment, and risk/benefit ratio mean that in most cases, these should NOT be attempted.

These liquids with an almost invisible flame. If the instructor mistakenly believes the flame went out and then pours more methanol in (and this is often from a 4-liter bottle), the result is a flame jetting eruption which instantly shoots a fireball of flaming liquid ten feet or more. The American Chemical Society (ACS) has released a video that explains flame jetting at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5sfUl6GIdYo (you may have to wait for an ad).

flame-jetting fireball erupting from a methanol bottle and engulfing a mannequin

This ACS video was made in collaboration with a number of groups committed to helping prevent flame jetting incidents: US Chemical Safety Board, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), BEAR, Inc., Sterno Products, LLC, Office of Congressman Mike Thompson, ATF Fire Research Laboratory, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, American Burn Association, Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation, Lamplight Farms, Jensen Hughes, Battelle, Health Canada and the Portable Fuel Container Manufacturers Association (PFCMA).

We have documented dozens of incidents involving over 100 injuries (some severe) to students from the elementary through college level in the past twenty years. These are often reported as "accidents" during "experiments" in high schools across the globe. These are NOT accidents. They are a completely foreseeable outcome of using an outdated teaching tool that goes by various names such as the "Rainbow Experiment" or "Borate Flame" (also known as the "Flaming Tornado" demonstration). And these are often referred to as "experiments" when they are really nothing more than pedagogically dubious demonstrations. Here is some background to give you an idea of the scope of the problem:

Thanks to the efforts of the American Chemical Society (ACS) and other groups, the top hits on Google searches for these kinds of demos make the danger immediately clear. However, recent experiences have indicated that many instructors fail to make even a cursory attempt to look up the necessary safety precautions for such demonstrations. We need everyone at every level - state fire marshals, school boards, unions, teachers, parents and students to get the word out to stop performing these demonstrations once and for all.

Breaking News...

LAWSUIT FILED (Dec 30, 2019) - The student injured in the Capri Elementary School "black snake" incident (see below) has filed a lawsuit seeking a jury trial against the Encinitas Union School District and up to 50 unnamed staff members claiming negligence for failure to take appropriate safety precautions. The filing has a detailed report on the incident and aftermath.

RECORD JURY AWARD (July 1, 2019) - A Beacon High School student was awarded nearly $60 million after a jury trial in New York. Alonzo Yanes was horridly burned over 30% of his body when his teacher ignited a fireball during the "Rainbow Experiment". Another student also received third degree burns. The laboratory involved had no safety shower or fume hood and the teacher and administration failed in their legal obligation to assess the risks associated with the procedure and mitigate the hazards. The teacher insists she did nothing wrong despite expert testimony indicating that the teacher violated a host of well-known best safety practices. The school is now apparently trying to dodge its responsibility to pay the full amount.

UPDATE (Aug 13, 2020) - The New York Supreme court upheld the judgement, rejecting the defendants' claim that the award was excessive. No doubt, further appeals will follow.

And Yet The Carnage Continues

November 6, 2019, Western Guilford High School, Greensboro, NC: Western Guilford Student Burned During Chemistry Class Experiment (sic), Parents Say Aimee Green was in intensive care after being burned during a chemistry demonstration. "She was in chemistry today, and the teacher was doing an experiment (sic). It went badly and exploded. The explosion went right onto Aimee and caught her hair, face, chest, and arm on fire. She also has burns on both hands," wrote the mom. Another student received less serious injuries.

August 6, 2019, Redan High School, Stone Mountain, GA: Georgia teen suffers 3rd degree burns during high school lab experiment (sic). Malachi McFadden suffered third degree burns to his face, head, arms and body when his teacher performed a "burning dollar bill" demonstration using ethanol, which burns with an almost invisible flame. "The fire went out of control as expected because there was ethanol in the bowl," Stewart said. "And instead of putting water on it to put it out, allegedly the teacher grabbed a jar of ethanol and threw it into the bowl."

June 13, 2019, Capri Elementary School, Encinitas, CA: 13-year-old burned in 'Black Fire Snake' experiment (sic) at school. The victim received burns to his face when his teacher apparently used an excessive amount of flammable accelerant during an elementary school demonstration. The student has required at least four burn surgeries to date. A video report is available at Fox News 8 (Cleveland).

Resources

Burned by Science: Understanding the Danger of Flame Jetting, a resource for firefighters and first responders to get the word out about flame-jetting.

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This page was last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2020 and is copyright 2018 by Interactive Learning Paradigms Incorporated. All rights reserved.