Minnesota Purges Toxic Chemicals From School Labs

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In addition to Thomas Toch, six staff writers contributed to the following article; it was written by Mr. Toch.

The Minnesota State Department of Education, in an unprecedented move, last week conducted a one-day statewide purge of hazardous chemicals from the science laboratories and storerooms of its junior and senior high schools.

Under a plan that was not publicly announced for fear of sparking public protest, representatives of about 100 schools from6around the state were scheduled to converge last Thursday on a predesignated "drop site" with a variety of unwanted and extremely toxic chemicals. The collection point is on land owned by the University of Minnesota in suburban St. Paul. The State Education Department, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, local school districts, and the university cooperated in the effort.

Toxic Wastes Common

The degree of cooperation among individuals and agencies required to carry out the potentially controversial disposal activity was rare, but the problem that provoked it is by no means so, according to Minnesota officials. Many schools in most states, they and other science experts assert, are burdened with a variety of toxic and hazardous chemicals they have neither the means nor the knowledge to dispose of properly.

At the unloading site in Minnesota, approximately 1,100 gallons of toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens such as benzene, benzidine, and asbestos, as well as acutely toxic substances such as potassium cyanide and arsenic trioxide, were to be turned over to qualified waste-disposal officials from theUniversity of Minnesota, which had agreed to incorporate the schools' chemicals into its own large hazardous-waste disposal system.

The materials, once they have been transferred to 55-gallon drums, will be transported, in keeping with federal hazardous-waste regulations, to a licensed landfill in Nevada.

The schools paid a disposal fee to the University of Minnesota of approximately $10 per gallon. The total cost of the operation was roughly $10,000.

The Minnesota Department of Education's science specialist, Richard Clark, who organized "Chemical Safety Day," said the large-scale, state-organized cleanup operation was provoked by visits to school science facilities throughout Minnesota that revealed many schools had supplies of unneeded and outdated hazardous chemicals that they were unable to dispose of legally.

Many of these substances, Mr. Clark said, were found to be stored in unmarked or damaged containers in unsafe areas. Many of the chemicals, he added, posed potentially severe threats to the health and safety of teachers and students.

David R. Volker, safety director for the Minnesota Employee Benefit Association, a nonprofit trust fund that administers self-insurance programs for two-thirds of the the approximately 400 school districts in the state, said that surveys he completed in conel10ljunction with last week's disposal operation revealed a "shocking disregard for safe storage and inventory procedures" in school science facilities around the state.

He said that in some cases, improper storage of hazardous materials had created "potential bombs" in school science classrooms and storage areas.

While last week's disposal operation was endorsed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the president's office of the University of Minnesota, it was conducted outside the jurisdiction of both state and federal hazardous-waste disposal regulations. (The toxic materials were packaged in accordance with U.S. Department of Transportation regulations.)

E.P.A. Not Contacted

Officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, authorized by federal law to oversee the disposal of toxic substances, were not contacted, according to Michael E. Sommer, a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency official.

The schools participating in the cleanup operation avoided having to comply with "costly and time-consuming" state and federal hazardous-waste disposal regulations--and stayed within the law--said Mr. Sommer, by declaring their hazardous substances "excess" (unwanted but usable chemicals) rather than "waste."

But a University of Minnesota toxic-waste disposal official said3that the university "may" save for its own use some of the chemicals collected last week. The official said that the organizers of Chemical Safety Day had to "kind of play with [state and federal hazardous-waste] regulations" to interpret the schools' chemicals as "excess" and not "waste."

Publicity about the plan was intentionally kept to a minimum, Mr. Clark said. It was made known only to those involved in it. Residents in the vicinity of the drop-off point--the Rosemount suburb of St. Paul--were not told that the operation would take place, he said.

The organizers of last week's disposal operation in Minnesota agreed that the success of the cleanup effort was dependent upon the willingness of the University of Minnesota to agree to take "ownership" of the schools' chemicals, the willingness of the state environmental protection agency to "sneak by" environmental regulations "on a technicality," and the ability of the organizers to minimize adverse publicity before the disposal program took place.

If these elements of the plan had not fallen into place, they say, many6of the dangerous chemicals would still be in the schools.

Interviews with many academic and government experts on hazardous waste across the country reveal that the dangerous substances found in the Minnesota school laboratories can also be found in science facilities in many of the nation's schools.

In addition, there is a consensus among these experts that many of the nation's approximately 96,000 junior- and senior-high-school science teachers are unaware of the dangers posed by these chemicals and that many of them are improperly trained in the storage, handling, and disposal of hazardous chemicals.

The experts also acknowledge that teachers who do try to dispose properly of dangerous, unused chemicals--some of which have been sitting unattended to in storage rooms for over 50 years--often find themselves frustrated by costly and time-consuming obstacles. These range over a bureaucratic gauntlet that includes reluctant school administrators, uncooperative landfill operators, and complex state and federal disposal regulations.

Regulatory 'Tightrope'

The regulatory "tightrope" walked by the organizers of the Minnesota cleanup operation--as well as the demonstrated need for the statewide project--illustrates, observers agree, the complexity and the urgency of the issue of the management of hazardous chemical inventories in the nation's schools.

The exact amount of unsafely stored or handled toxic chemicals in science laboratories across the country and the threat they pose to teacher and student safety is hard to calculate accurately.

Stanley H. Pine, professor of chemistry at California State University and chairman of the American Chemical Society's subcommittee on safety in high-school laboratories, says, "It's not an immediate catastrophe type of problem. But it is certainly something we should do something about."

Adds Robert W. Lumston, science consultant to the Florida Department of Education: "I have not seen too many science departments where they do not have some degree of problem."

Many other state science supervisors said in recent weeks that inadequate storage and disposal of toxic chemicals is a "serious" or "big" problem.

Unaware of Dangers

Observers note that, although many science teachers are today more sensitive to the need for safety in the use of toxic chemicals, too many of them are simply not aware of the potential dangers the chemicals pose or of the state and federal regulations that govern their disposal.

"It is out of ignorance and a lack of training that science teachers store incompatible chemicals next to each other or dump hazardous things down the drain," says Jack A. Gerlovich, science consultant in Iowa, one of a few states that have attempted state-coordinated hazardous-chemical removal programs similar to Minnesota's.

(Iowa has created a five-year state referral service, begun last spring, that allows schools to call one of 14 state chemists who arrange for proper disposal of a particular chemical.)

There are several sources of blame, critics charge, for the lack of adequate training among teachers in the proper use and disposal of hazardous chemicals, including the failure of education schools to address safety issues, the lack of training programs in many states, and the increasing number of teachers uncertified in chemistry who are teaching the subject as a result of acute shortages in many school districts around the country.

Says Donald W. McCurdy, past-president of the National Science Teachers Association and professor of science education at the University of Nebraska: "In teacher-training institutions we are not putting enough emphasis on hazardous-waste safety training. We are only hitting the high spots."

Others say that teachers often buy more chemicals than are needed or purchase them without a clear sense of what their needs are, causing the unused chemicals to be shoved to the back of cabinets where they sit, deteriorating, for long periods of time.

Labels fall off. There is a turnover in teachers--especially uncertified teachers--and as a result, proper inventory procedures are not followed. In this way, observers note, dangerous materials are lost track of in store rooms and laboratory cabinets.

Science teachers are free under federal law to purchase nearly any chemical they want. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (epa) has only recently begun to restrict the use of specific chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act, signed into law in 1976. An epa official said that none of the few chemicals the agency has restricted, including dioxin, would likely be found in schools.

Some states do conduct laboratory safety workshops, and some do help schools remove hazardous chemicals, although observers say attention to safety varies greatly from school district to school district and from state to state.

Inventory Programs

Virginia, like Iowa, helps schools to inventory unwanted toxic materials and offers advice on how to remove them.

The toxic-chemical removal programs in Virginia and Iowa followed similar efforts in those states two years ago to remove outdated picric acid from school laboratories.

Picric acid, which can be highly explosive if allowed to evaporate, provoked a nationwide alarm in 1979 after it was discovered in Pennsylvania schools. It was when science teachers across the country were scrutinizing laboratories for picric acid in that year, says Mr. Clark of Minnesota, that teachers began to realize there was a wide variety of unknown toxic chemicals in school storage areas.

Only in the last two or three years, observers note, have the potential problems of the storage and disposal of hazardous chemicals received serious attention.

Among private organizations, the American Chemical Society offers a toxic-chemical telephone referral service. The Council of State Science3Supervisors, in cooperation with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (niosh), has conducted two-day laboratory-safety sessions around the country since 1977.

But although many who have attended these sessions speak favorably of them, several state science advisors say that the number of teachers the training program has reached is limited.

niosh in the next several weeks will release a new "hazards" booklet that will offer alternatives to the experiments involving hazardous chemicals described in major high-school chemistry textbooks.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets safety standards that cover teachers in school laboratories. However, the agency does not have enforcement authority over public school teachers because they are "government" employees and an agency official said that inspection of laboratories is "a low priority."

The National Fire Protection Association, a non-profit professional organization, also issues laboratory standards. But a spokesman for the group said it is impossible to know how many state and local jurisdictions have adopted the standards as law.

Some states have taken steps to shore up safety training.

In New Hampshire, education-school students in science are required to take a laboratory-safety course. The Florida Department of Education last year proposed legislation that would have required schools to keep an inventory of chemicals and principals to submit a yearly record to the department of education, but the bill was not approved. In Arkansas, schools are accredited by the state in part on the basis of adequate science-storage facilities.

Many state departments of education, however, do not have science advisors, and leave safety instruction entirely up to local school districts.

Some individual schools districts--such as Cincinnati, Jacksonville, and Montgomery County, Md.--have conducted their own hazardous-chemical cleanups.

The dangers of improperly stored chemicals include the inadvertant mixing of reactive chemicals, the exposure of "oxidizers" (such as sodium) to air, or the evaporation of "stabilizing" liquids from otherwise highly volatile substances. Burns, explosions, and the emission of toxic gases are among the possible consequences of these reactions.

The National Safety Council reports there were approximately 3,000 accidents involving junior-high and high-school students in science laboratories last year. Observers say this is not a large number of accidents, but they are concerned about the relative severity of accidents involving chemicals.

Late last month, two students and their teachers at a suburban Minneapolis junior high school were rushed to a hospital after an explosion occured in a science laboratory where the teacher was using an explosive chemical in an experiment.

Some science-teaching experts also worry that what they see as an increasing number of lawsuits against science teachers, school districts, and even textbook publishers6will discourage teachers from using laboratory work as part of their curriculum.

Says Mr. Pine of the American Chemical Society: "There is a real concern that chemistry will become non-chemistry. Teachers are worried about liability and safety, on one hand, and the need for chemicals and laboratory work in good science teaching on the other.

Less Hazardous Experiments

Most science education officials note a trend on the part of science teachers towards the use of fewer toxic chemicals in experiments.

Earlier this month, a $13-million law suit brought by two Philadelphia-area eighth-grade students who were severely burned in a school science room accident in 1976 was settled out of court for $600,000.

In some cases, observers note, insurance companies are beginning to prohibit schools they ensure from using certain hazardous chemicals in experiments.

Minnesota schools were able to solve the problem of disposing of unwanted toxic chemicals on a state level. But many well-intentioned teachers often find themselves trapped, observers say, with no legitimate means of disposing of the unwanted substances.

Although some schools haveel80lworked out individual arrangements with nearby universities or local chemical companies, education officials say, licensed landfill operators are few, and many of them are reluctant to take chemicals that are not clearly labeled, which is often the case with school laboratory waste.

In addition, school administrators are often reluctant to pay private firms to remove hazardous materials. According to Minnesota science specialist Clark and others, these private firms frequently charge between $1,000 and $2,000 for each pickup.

Says Mr. Lumston, the Florida science advisor: "When a science teacher goes to the principal to propose getting a commercial service to get rid of the stuff, the principal says, 'Hey, we just paid to get this stuff, and now we have to pay to get rid of it, too'?"

But perhaps the most imposing obstacles confronting teachers are federal and state hazardous-waste disposal regulations.

According to epa regulations that went into effect a year ago under the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, any organization that "generates" more than approximately one ton of hazardous waste per month must comply with a complicated "cradle-to-grave" manifest system designed to ensure that waste in fact ends up in federally licensed disposal sites.

Few schools would ever produce that much waste. However, the reg3ulations require that anyone having more than 2.2 pounds per month of "acutely hazardous" waste (see list on page 15) would also have to comply with the manifest system.

'Small Generators'

Most experts agree, however, that state disposal laws present the greatest obstacle to science teachers and schools wanting to dispose of relatively small amounts of toxic waste. The reason is that most states do not exempt so-called "small generators" the way the federal regulations do.

As a result, schools, even though they produce small amounts of hazardous waste, must comply with complex, costly, and time-consuming regulations, says Mr. Sommer of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Minnesota requires a cradle-to-grave manifest system.

According to Mr. Sommer, before the statewide disposal operation last week, a Minnesota school district wanting to dispose of toxic chemicals would have to arrange for the packing, shipping, and disposal of the chemicals, as well as record-keeping.

Schools cannot afford the time or the expense involved in complying with such stringent regulations, says Mr. Clark. "They are trapped. They are not supposed to have the stuff. Yet they cannot get rid of it.''

"As a result," he says, "too much of it goes down the sink. Or they put the stuff right back on the shelf and forget about it."

Vol. 01, Issue 11

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