The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has released a safety bulletin called “Key Lessons for Preventing Incidents from Flammable Chemicals in Educational Demonstrations” based on three recent serious incidents in Nevada, Colorado, and Illinois where children were burned while observing laboratory demonstrations involving flammable liquid methanol.
The first incident described in the CSB safety bulletin is the accident on September 3, 2014, at the Terry Lee Wells Discovery Museum, known as “The Discovery,” in Reno, Nevada, where thirteen people, most of them children, were injured. Two CSB investigators were deployed to the site and interviewed personnel who were directly involved.
Just 12 days after the fire in Nevada, a second similar accident occurred on September 15th at the SMART Academy in Denver, Colorado, severely burning a 16-year-old high school student. Most recently, on October 20, 2014, less than five weeks after the incident at SMART, three Cub Scouts and one adult were injured during a demonstration using methanol at a Cub Scout event in Raymond, Illinois.
All the incidents involved demonstrations of flames – usually with a color additive – using methanol as the flammable liquid. In all three cases there was a flash back to the methanol bulk containers, and fire engulfed members of the viewing audience who were not protected by any physical barriers.
The safety bulletin notes that these incidents are similar to others the CSB has identified in which laboratory demonstrations involving flammable materials have resulted in fires and injuries. These include a 2006 accident at an Ohio high school that severely burned then-15-year-old student Calais Weber. The accident took place during a demonstration of a chemical “rainbow” that involved combusting salts with methanol. Calais’ story was described in a CSB safety video released in December 2013, called “After the Rainbow.”
The CSB found that the accident at The Discovery took place during a “fire tornado” demonstration, where salts of different elements are burned in a dish along with methanol-soaked cotton balls, while spinning on a rotating tray. This produces a colored flame that looks like a tornado.
However, on the day of the accident the cotton failed to catch fire as expected. Additional methanol was added from a four-liter (about a gallon) bottle. CSB investigators determined that unbeknownst to museum personnel, the cotton ball was likely already smoldering, which ignited the freshly added methanol. A flash fire raced back into the large bottle – and burning methanol from the bottle sprayed toward the nearby audience of adults and children.
CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso said, “ When performed safely these kinds of demonstrations can engage students and visitors and stimulate their interest in science. But methanol, the hazardous chemical involved in The Discovery and two other recent incidents the CSB has investigated, is classified as a highly flammable liquid, and users should adopt strict safety controls.”
Methanol can ignite at room temperature and has the potential for dangerous flash fires, especially when large quantities are present. The threat is quite similar to gasoline.
However, CSB investigators learned that methanol is readily sold to schools and museums in four-liter containers.