Last year, a teacher at Central High School in Cheyenne, Wyo., found a cake of radioactive yellow uranium stored in a file cabinet. But a lack of uniform reporting guidelines kept the state Department of Education in the dark about the discovery.
The teacher was cleaning out a retired teacher’s office, getting ready for his first semester at the school, when he discovered a metal box labeled “radioactive.”
‘The retired teacher “may have forgotten it was there,” Central High science department head Jeff Ketcham said, adding it may have been stored there for as many as three decades.
The school district’s safety coordinator called in hazardous materials experts to remove the radioactive cake immediately.
“They put a Geiger counter to it and it was radiating,” Ketcham said. “It was hot.” But, he said, “where it was being stored it probably wouldn’t have been a threat to anyone.”
Still, the potential for situations like this one has led the Wyoming Department of Education to resurrect a chemical safety program that has lapsed in the past few years. The department is using an old safety manual combined with guidelines borrowed from Colorado and Massachusetts to ensure the proper storage and use of hazardous material in schools.
Despite handling the above situation carefully, Laramie County School District 1 officials never notified the state education department about the radioactive material.
“We are unaware of that incident,” Department of Education health and safety director Gerry Maas said.
The lack of notification could have resulted from a confusion over who to notifya problem that exists in many states.
“Most hazardous materials that are reported in cities and counties are reported to police or fire departments,” state Department of Environmental Quality emergency responder Joe Hunter said.
Some teachers call city or county environmental health specialists when they find unknown or out-of-date chemicals. Others consult with the DEQ.
Since 1978, about six Wyoming schools have contacted the DEQ to ask if chemicals found in their storage cabinets were considered hazardous. The DEQ offers a free review of chemical inventories to schools and businesses throughout the state.
In some districts, teachers are responsible for taking care of chemical inventories and disposing of hazardous materials. In other districts, school science department heads monitor the chemicals.
In districts like Cheyenne, there is a safety coordinator or risk manager who oversees the disposal of chemicals.
A lack of mandatory, uniform reporting has allowed problems to slip through the cracks, according to a copyrighted story in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle.
That wasn’t the case in Wyoming a few years ago, when retired state science coordinator Bill Futrell was on the job. He inspected every high school in the state about once a year and held safety seminars for teachers and department heads.
Futrell also wrote a manual for teachers, entitled “Safety First in Science Teaching,” that last was revised in 1989.
Maas, who joined the state Department of Education recently, said he has reviewed the booklet’s contents and would like to resurrect its use.
In reaction to many hazardous chemical violations found in science classrooms earlier this year, Colorado adopted new guidelines for the storage and disposal of chemicals used in science labs.
Maas and Hunter met Nov. 28 to develop a new safety program for teachers in Wyoming. Hunter based the protocol almost entirely on Colorado’s and Massachusetts’ guidelines.
“We almost copied Colorado’s plan. It’s pretty effective,” Hunter said.
In January, Maas is expected to call a committee together to review Futrell’s decade-old booklet and test the draft state protocol in an attempt to “bulletproof” the system.
If all goes as planned, the protocol and booklet will be available to teachers through the department’s web site by the end of this school year. But the program would not be mandatory and wouldn’t require teachers to submit chemical inventories or be subject to inspection.
“The main purpose is to find out if there are any problems in schools right now,” Hunter said.
Maas said it will be up to school districts to decide if they want to implement the new guidelines. “If they follow this booklet, they’re going to be fine,” he said.
Ketcham would like to see the new guidelines be more than a voluntary program, but he said any general guidelines the state can give teachers will be helpful.
“I don’t think there is a lot of information that is available,” he added.
Wyoming Department of Education
2300 Capitol Avenue
Cheyenne, WY 82002-0050
phone (307) 777-7675
fax (307) 777-6234
Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality
122 West 25th Street
Cheyenne, WY 82002
phone (307) 777- 7758