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Survey Finds 27 Carcinogens in Science Labs

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An informal survey by the staff of the Consumer Product Safety Commission has found 27 recognized or suspected cancer-causing chemicals in high-school laboratories.

In a report to the three-member federal consumer-protection commission, the staff also asserted that existing laboratory safety information "does not adequately address potential chronic adverse health effects associated with exposure to laboratory chemicals" and that "chemical storage and disposal practices appear to vary widely."

Approximately half of the respondents to the survey said that their laboratories are not equipped with basic safety equipment such as eyewashes, fire extinguishers, or fire blankets, the report noted.

A separate internal commission memorandum stated that "almost no information about chronic hazards has been given to teachers." "Chronic"--as opposed to "acute"--hazards are defined as causing illness slowly, over an extended period of time.

Benzene, formaldehyde, and carbon tetrachloride were among the known or suspected cancer-causing chemicals identified by the survey, which included responses from 22 school districts in 11 states. The states were Minnesota, Missouri, Colorado, California, Kansas, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Wisconsin.

The survey, sent to the school districts late last summer, also identified among high-school inventories 11 chemicals suspected of causing birth defects.

The study did not include information on the levels of the potentially dangerous chemicals in classrooms, nor did it make any conclusion on the severity of the health hazard posed by the presence of the chemicals in high-school laboratories and storage areas.

Staff 'Fairly Alarmed'

However, Rory S. Fausett, program manager of the commission's chemical hazards program, said the commission staff was "fairly alarmed" at the number of cancer-related chemicals revealed by the survey.

The results of the survey, he added, "warrant concern" among science teachers, and he encouraged them to "do some homework" on the chronic dangers of chemicals and remove chemicals that are considered dangerous.

"Teachers have little knowledge about the dangerous chemicals," he said, "much less an understanding of how to deal with them."

To counter the current lack of information about the possible dangers of such chemicals, the commission will organize a network of teacher, industry, government, and civic groups that will work to improve school laboratory safety and encourage science teachers to use safer alternative chemicals.

The survey findings confirm those of a similar investigation of the problem conducted by Education Week in November.--T.T.

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