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Cincinnati Schools Pioneered In Chemical-Safety Program

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Nearly four years ago, Cincinnati school officials decided to adopt safety procedures for handling and disposing of toxic and hazardous chemicals in the high schools and to bring some order to chemical storerooms in the schools.

The actions were agreed upon after officials stumbled onto an assortment of old and potentially-hazardous chemicals in a number of high schools that were being closed because of declining enrollment.

Those discoveries coincided with new warnings issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (epa) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (osha) about known and suspected carcinogenic substances often found in high school science labora-tories.

"We just became more aware of things we shouldn't be using any longer," Jerome L. Braun, supervisor of secondary science and health, said of the district's concerted effort to promote safety procedures in its high-school science classes and chemistry labs.

He acknowledged that the safety program is "very expensive," but said that it is "not as costly as having students use old and possibly dangerous chemicals."

Cincinnati is one of the few school systems in the nation that have established a formal policy for handling and disposing of hazardous chemicals commonly used in the high schools. The policy also requires that science teachers receive safety training.

New science teachers must complete an "in-service" training program offered by the district. All 120 science teachers now employed by the school district have taken the course, according to Mr. Braun.

Safety Guidelines

In addition, he said, the teachers are given a list of dangerous and carcinogenic chemicals and a safety manual of guidelines to be followed as recommended by osha and by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The safety manual is revised every two or three years.

"We highly recommend inventorying and labeling," Mr. Braun said. But that advice, he noted, is not taken "as strongly as I'd like to see it."

Sharon Loos, who has taught science and chemistry in Cincinnati schools for the past 17 years, remembers the initial push to rid the schools of old and unwanted chemicals. She said there were "all kinds of unlabeled chemicals" in the storeroom she inherited.

Mary L. Fisher, currently a junior-high science and math teacher, was teaching chemistry and earth and physical science when the district's policy was initiated. She said she found "solid potassium chunks in a liquid to keep it from exploding, hand grenades without the pins, and carcinogenic chemicals."

Teachers' requests for help with the disposal of dangerous or excess chemicals now pose no problem, Mr. Braun said, except for cost.

"We support them all the way in this," Mr. Braun said. "All they have to do is package the chemicals and fill out a work order to have them removed."

Once a work order is completed, it is sent to the safety division and arrangements are made with a private disposal company, according to Mr. Braun.

Emergency Treatment

In the event of an accident, emergency treatment can begin right in the classroom. Mr. Braun said more than 100 aerated spray nozzles called "eye washes" have been installed in science classrooms in the district, and the larger chemistry labs are being equipped with shower stalls in the event of chemical spills or splatters.

Each high school has been given a safety budget of up to $1,000, and, according to Mr. Braun, safety posters are displayed as reminders of the procedural guidelines.

Science teachers in the district say that safety training is extensive, and some require their students to sign a contract stating they will abide by formal rules of behavior in the class.

But despite the extensive safety measures, some teachers say that potential hazards still exist because of teacher turnover and the lack of sufficient funds for safety equipment in both the junior and senior high schools.

Ms. Loos said it can take months before someone from the district's safety division arrives to remove a chemical that is believed to be dangerous.

Although most such chemicals have been removed and disposed of in the past several years, Ms. Fisher said, much of the zeal that was present four years ago has "died down again" and it is difficult to keep track of all the chemicals because of teacher reassignments from year to year.--S.F.

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