Teachers Say Vague Rules, Poor Training
High-school science teachers say that they have unfairly borne the brunt of public criticism surrounding the problem of inadequate safety measures in school laboratories.
More likely sources of the problem, they claim, are regulatory agencies, which issue warnings about certain chemicals but fail to consider how their actions affect schools, and schools of education, which fail to train teachers adequately in lab safety techniques.
John R. Pancella, secondary sciences coordinator for the Montgomery County, Md., public schools, says that the recent warning about dangers posed by formaldehyde is a prime example of regulatory inadequacy.
"The people who made that decision are ivory-tower professionals," Mr. Pancella explains. "They came out with a set of lofty principles, but they failed to provide the little guys like us with any practical advice."
He says that schools were told that formaldehyde was potentially hazardous, but not much more than that. "They never said in what quantities," he continues, "whether or not the quantities used in schools fell within those limits, whether or not Formalin (a 30 percent aqueous solution of formaldehyde) was equally dangerous, whether or not we would have to dump all of our preserved specimens, and whether or not our wastes would be acceptable to local dumps."
Mr. Pancella says that his questions about storage and disposal of the chemical were answered eventually, but only after he "was forced to rediscover the wheel, as was every other school district in the country."
Philip Shreiner, chairman of the science department at Georgetown Preparatory School in Rockville, Md., says that the chemical disposal problem is made more serious by the propensity of high-schools to keep their labs stocked with large quantities of unused--and sometimes dangerous--substances.
"When I came to the school about five years ago, it was difficult for me understand why the lab was stocked with certain materials," he recalls. "I'd estimate that I probably haven't used about 80 percent of the chemicals on the shelves here."
About 100 grams of "very, very old" and potentially-explosive picric acid is included in that unused chemical list, Mr. Shreiner notes.
"I've been here for quite a while," he says, "and I thought that I knew everything that I had here, but I just found it over the summer." The local fire marshall has been contacted about removing the substance from the school, he adds.
Mr. Shreiner says that he cannot recall receiving instruction during either his undergraduate or graduate days in college on how to dispose of hazardous materials like picric acid.
"Generally speaking, I don't feel schools of education prepare their students adequately in terms of lab safety," he says. "Actually, I'm a bit surprised at myself for not being more of a safety fiend in the laboratory because I was injured in a lab fire once."
Elaine W. Ledbetter, who taught chemistry at Pampa High School in Pampa, Tex., for 29 years before retiring in 1980, says she is worried that most young teachers today are coming out of college without training in lab safety. "Right now, they have to get that training on the job, and I'm afraid that in some cases that means learning from their mistakes," she says.--T.M.