Chemistry Classroom Fire Renews Concerns About the ‘Rainbow Experiment’

By Liana Loewus — November 02, 2015 2 min read
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Last week, a fire broke out in a chemistry class at a Fairfax, Va., high school, sending five students to the hospital with chemical burns.

One student with more severe injuries will need surgeries on her face. The teacher who conducted the experiment also suffered minor burns, according to reports.

Students from the class said that the teacher, who has not commented, poured flammable liquid onto a desk and lit it with a Bunsen burner. She then introduced different chemicals to show how they altered the color of the flames.

It’s a version of a well-known but decidedly risky demonstration known as the “rainbow experiment,” in which methanol is used to ignite different types of salts.

In 2014, two New York City high school students suffered burns when that experiment sent a plume of fire across the science lab.

After that accident, Ken Roy, the chief science safety compliance consultant for the National Science Teachers Association, told me in an interview that methanol is “unpredictable” and can become “a death bomb.”

“I prefer people don’t do this,” he said. “If you must, you should do it under a fume hood. There should be eye protection, and you never take methanol, a bottle of it, and pour it when you have an open flame.”

Lab Safety Regulations Needed?

It’s unclear exactly which chemicals the Virginia teacher was using. But according to the Washington Post, “One student said the teacher was not wearing any protective gear, nor were the students in the room, including those closest to the experiment.”

Jim Kaufman, the president of the nonprofit Lab Safety Institute and a former chemistry professor at Curry College in Massachusetts, has been advocating for more states to require science teachers to receive lab safety training before going into the classroom. Very few states currently have such requirements, he says—and untrained teachers are all too likely to cause injuries.

The problem as he sees it is not with the experiment itself, but with the lack of lab safety regulations. “It’s unfortunate that methanol would be characterized as unpredictable,” he wrote in an email after the New York incident. “Its properties are well known and easy to understand. It is no more unpredictable than the 20 gallons of gasoline we drive around with in our cars. ... Teachers need only follow proper procedures and take appropriate precautions.”

See also: Explosion From Common Science Experiment Burns Two Students

Image: Firefighters gather outside Woodson High School after a morning fire in Fairfax, Va., on Oct. 30. —Tom Jackman /The Washington Post/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.