Feds Warned of Chemistry Experiment Dangers Before New York City School Blast

January 6, 2014

Federal safety officials had issued warnings about the dangers of a popular chemistry experiment before a New York City teenager suffered life-threatening burns in a blast during a demonstration in his high school class.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board circulated a video warning to its 60,000 subscribers about the rainbow demonstration just weeks ago, The New York Times reported Friday. The experiment, which uses methanol to burn dishes of materials, producing a variety of colored flames, has been blamed for other serious injuries around the country.

Spokeswoman Hillary Cohen said Friday that the board had no sure way of reaching individual teachers at schools like Beacon High School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where two students were injured Thursday when a rainbow experiment triggered a flash of flames.

Witnesses said snakelike flames tore through the air when a chemistry teacher performed the experiment, searing the skin of 16-year-old Alonzo Yanes. He was in critical condition Friday in the burn unit of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

A female student was treated for first-degree burns and released.

The city’s Department of Education is investigating the accident.

The safety board’s video did not say the rainbow demonstration should be banned but warned that accidents have repeatedly occurred because of the volatile material involved.

“What we need to look at is why is this accident keeps happening across the country,” said Mary Beth Mulcahy, a former high school science teacher who is now an investigator with the safety board.

The Times reported that the safety board has documented at least seven accidents involving the rainbow demonstration, including a 2006 case featured in the video that left a 15-year-old girl in Ohio with severe burns over more than 48 percent of her body

Students or teachers have also been badly burned in explosions in Seattle and Frisco, Texas.

Lab safety consultant David J. Leggett said methanol quickly produces flammable vapors even at room temperature.

He told The Times he questioned the use of methanol in an experiment just to show students the colors produced by different minerals.

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