Rainbow Flame Demonstration Goes Awry

Fire extinguisher on flame backgroundA fire that erupted in a Fairfax, VA high school chemistry class as the result of a popular demonstration injured five students and a teacher at the end of October, prompting authorities to issue safety warnings.

W.T. Woodson High School students said that the October 30 fire started when a chemistry demonstration began going wrong. The teacher poured out a flammable liquid, lit it on fire, and then started introducing different metals to show how it changed colors, a science demonstration known as the “rainbow flame.”

When the flame began dying down, students said that the teacher poured more of the liquid, causing a “splash of fire.” Neither the teacher nor the students were wearing protective gear. Consequently, it seriously burned two students, hurt the teacher, and sent three other students to the hospital.

Following the incident, the National Science Teachers Association sent out a safety advisory to 68,000 teachers telling them to “halt the use of methanol-based flame tests on an open laboratory desk,” referring to the liquid teachers typically use in rainbow flame demos.

“When carried out on open laboratory desks (outside of a chemical hood) these demonstrations present a high risk level for flash fires and deflagrations that can cause serious injuries to students and teachers,” the association wrote. “Teachers who conduct these types of demonstrations outside of a fume hood put themselves and their students at unnecessary and serious risk during this demonstration.”

School fires are not a new problem. According to the latest data available, the National Fire Protection Association reports that there were about 4,000 school building fires between 2009 and 2011, which caused about 75 injuries and $66.1 million in property loss.

One key to preventing such injuries and expenses is to have active, working smoke alarms equipped throughout the building, as proper detection can provide a warning 10 to 15 minutes before the end of the fire’s incipient stage, allowing fire departments to limit damage. However, smoke alarms were reported as being present in only 66% of nonconfined school building fires.

Officials have declined to release certain key details of the incident, such as whether the teacher performed the demonstration under a fume hood as district safety guidelines instruct, or what sort of liquid was used by the teacher.

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