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School Science Labs Are Often Experiments in Danger

Education: Pressured to meet higher standards, teachers are exposing students to new perils. But state and federal agencies keeping tabs on safety aren't watching.

July 07, 2002|From Associated Press

GENOA, Ill. — In a flash, the routine high school chemistry experiment turned to chaos.

An alcohol-fueled fireball shot into the classroom, searing the skin of three junior honor students in the front row. They took the brunt of the blast on their faces, necks, arms, hands and legs.

The teacher pulled burning jeans off one of the girls; scorched skin fell from the boy's face. The rest of the class scrambled for the door, leaving burned backpacks and books behind.

The fire at Genoa-Kingston High School last October may have been a horrible accident, but it was not unique. Across the country, at least 150 students have been seriously injured in school laboratory accidents in the last four years.

But the number is almost certainly much higher, according to interviews with researchers, school officials and insurance companies. And the stage is set for a significant increase, they said. As schools try to meet tough new science education standards set by the National Academy of Sciences in 1996, students are spending more time in laboratories. Some are crowded. Some have teachers with no safety training. Some are in 19th-century buildings ill-equipped for 21st-century science.

"Before, most kids were reading out of textbooks, but the new federal science standards absolutely, strongly, advocate hands-on, inquiry-based science," said Kenneth Roy, who chairs an advisory board on science safety for the National Science Teachers Assn. "What this means is, you have to have safety concerns as job one, but some schools don't."

Teachers are protected in the workplace by state safety laws, but students are not. There is little regulation of school labs, and no government or private agency collects data on accidents that happen there. Thus, the exact number of accidents is unknown.

Almost all of the accidents and injuries could have been prevented with simple measures, experts said. But many teachers are unaware of the dangers, and there is no formal system to share information on accidents so that teachers can learn from others' mistakes.

But they occur often enough to be considered a serious problem, according to safety experts and insurers who have paid millions of dollars to settle claims.

There is evidence that the number of accidents has risen since schools began adopting the new teaching standards. In Iowa, there were 674 accidents in the three school years from fall 1990 through spring 1993, but more than 1,000 in the next three years, said Jack Gerlovich, who teaches science safety at Drake University.

The increase came after Iowa schools began adopting an early version of the new National Academy of Sciences standards, he said. The number of lawsuits soared too, from 96 to 245. Gerlovich said he suspects the same thing is happening in other states.

"I think this was the tip of an iceberg," he said.

When the swoosh of fire hit Autum Burton, she was returning to her seat in her chemistry class after taking a closer look at the colors of the flames in the six petri dishes on the teacher's table. In an instant, she was engulfed. "I could feel it eating at me and I could smell my skin burning," she said. "I was on the floor trying to get this off with my hands."

She was burned over half her body, sustaining injuries to her face, neck, chest, arms and legs.

Burton, 19, now attends Columbia College in Chicago. Despite eight skin-graft operations and three laser treatments to diminish scarring on her face, she will be disfigured for life.

The accident happened two years ago at Lakeview High School in Battle Creek, Mich. Just two months earlier, a 16-year-old girl was severely burned in a similar accident about 40 miles away, at Waverly High School near Lansing. In both cases, the experiments involved methyl alcohol.

A volatile chemical that ignites easily, methyl alcohol often is involved in the most catastrophic accidents. In recent years, it also has caused flash fires at schools in Santa Clarita and Riverside, Calif.; here in Genoa; Midland, Texas; New Berlin, Wis., and Washington, D.C.

If the teacher does not use an exhaust system, leaves the cap off the alcohol jug or pours too much into the dishes, fumes can build up and, if exposed to flame, create a flash fire.

The fire marshal in Battle Creek determined Burton's accident could have been prevented if an exhaust system in the room had been used to draw away fumes. And the injuries might have been minimized if the teacher had used a plastic shield or required the students to wear goggles.

In many cases, school officials believed such protection was unnecessary when students were watching, rather than participating in, an experiment, even though most state laws require eye protection under such circumstances.

But Gerlovich, the Drake University researcher, has found that more than 70% of North Carolina science teachers had never received safety training. He said surveys in 17 other states found an average of 55% to 65% of teachers have never been trained in safety.

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