As a Lansing, Mich., student returned home from the hospital after being treated for severe burns she received in a high school chemistry experiment, a national group trying to make science classes safer suggested ways to avoid such accidents.
Waverly High School junior Christine Jurus, 16, was released Dec. 18 after spending three weeks in the hospital recovering from severe burns to the inside of her throat, her right hand and right ear.
Jurus was injured Nov. 24 when some methanol gas ignited during a demonstration by her chemistry teacher. The teacher, Ernest Luttig, continues to teach, but the district has suspended the use of methanol. The chemical had been used in many experiments without incident.
James Kaufman, director of the Laboratory Safety Workshop in Natick, Mass., has been promoting safer science classes for 20 years. As an employee of Dow Chemical Corp. who later became a professor, Kaufman said he was shocked at how lax safety standards were in academia compared to industry.
“Senior administrators… think, ‘I hire these science people, they’re well-trained and they know how to take care of this safety stuff,'” he said. “That’s not true. Many of them have never had serious training in safety.”
Kaufman said he has heard of problems with methanol before. In one case, he said, students were launching potatos on a football field using a methanol-fired cannon.
“The explosion launched the potato, and a significant portion of the football field,” said Kaufman, noting that one student was seriously injured.
Still, Kaufman said singling out certain chemicals or banning experiments is the wrong way to handle safety problems.
“There’s no need to create an artificially sterile environment in school,” he said. “Acids are corrosive, but they are also present in car batteries. We need to learn to use these things safely.”
Kaufman suggests adopting safety standards and holding safety training classes, something that most statesincluding Michigandon’t do.
He also said students should always wear safety goggles and teachers should hold potentially dangerous demonstrations behind safety shields.
“Of all the mistakes that you can make, not putting up a shield often takes you down a road where there are great regrets afterward,” he said. “What does it take to convince people that they have to think these through a little bit more carefully?”
Waverly schools Superintendent Jim Ryan said Luttig wasn’t using a shield during the demonstration, but didn’t know whether or not students were wearing safety goggles. District rules say students are required to wear goggles when they are performing experiments in teams of two. n