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For Immediate Release: Nov 02, 2015
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

CHEMISTRY CLASSROOM FLASH FIRE SHOULD BE INVESTIGATED

Chemical Safety Board Dispatches Tweets Not Investigators to Latest School Blowout


Washington, DC — The federal chemical safety agency is taking a pass on examining the flash fire last Friday in a suburban D.C. high school chemistry classroom, choosing to send out messages on Twitter rather than investigators, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This same type of accident had been previously investigated by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), but it never issued formal recommendations to public agencies or schools for ending these highly preventable incidents.

On Friday, October 30th, a chemistry demonstration at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, VA, went horribly wrong, injuring six, with five requiring hospitalization, including two students airlifted with serious burns. The flameout also forced evacuation of the school building.

The chemistry class exercise was a reportedly a “rainbow” flame demonstration that usually involves use of a flame accelerant, methanol, a highly flammable liquid. The rainbow flame demonstration illustrates how chemicals affect the color of burning flames.

This same demonstration has previously caused similarly disastrous results in schools and other educational settings around the country. In these cases, fire flashed back to nearby bulk methanol containers. The CSB previously sent investigators to two such flameouts in 2014 at a Reno, Nevada, science museum and at a Denver area high school. It has also identified numerous other flame color accidents, including one in 2006 that left a 15-year-old Ohio girl with severe burns over half her body and a January 2014 incident at a Manhattan school that severely burned a student.

The previous investigations required only a limited resource commitment from the agency, and were completed under the prior chairman in less than two months from start to finish, with field deployments of two days of less.

Despite the close proximity of this latest incident—less than a half-hour drive from the CSB’s headquarters in downtown Washington, DC—the agency has evidently declined to investigate, instead sending out a handful of tweets on the matter pointing to prior work. In fact, CSB has not deployed investigators to any accident, including nearly a score of major industrial chemical explosions causing worker deaths and injuries, since March of this year when the former chairman resigned under pressure.

“This same classroom accident has happened numerous times around the country and tragically burned many kids,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that CSB has produced a YouTube video as well as a safety bulletin on the rainbow flame demonstration but has not made formal recommendations that could be implemented by organizations overseeing the nation’s school systems. “Right now, the Chemical Safety Board’s priorities appear seriously out of order.”

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Watch the 2013 CSB video on the rainbow flame demonstration

Read 2014 CSB Safety Bulletin

Compare 2015 CSB tweet response

Look at 2016 CSB investigative hiatus