Life Lessions Learned In The School Science Lab
By: Delores Gempel Lekowski

Recently, I met two burn survivors from different high schools who were burned in their
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school chemistry labs during experiments involving the same culprit - methanol.

Methanol, also known as wood alcohol, is a colorless, toxic, flammable liquid used in antifreeze, solvents and as fuel. For years, methanol has been commonly used in school laboratories across the country in a variety of experiments to demonstrate chemical reactions. It gives off vapors at a low temperature, and there doesn't have to be a thick concentration of vapors for a fire to ignite. A methanol flame is almost colorless.

In my discussions with one of the burn survivors, I learned the tragic turn of events that resulted in an accident while the student was observing her teacher's methanol demonstration. The science teacher had decided to conduct the impromptu demonstration at the end of class. The student was asked to move to another seat so the teacher could use her desk to perform the experiment. None of the students was told to wear safety goggles or lab coats, and the experiment was not conducted in a well-ventilated or shielded area.

This particular experiment involved igniting methanol inside a plastic jug so that a cork popped out of the top, and then repeating the procedure with a variable changed so that the cork did not pop. However, the second time the teacher added methanol to the jug, a flash fire unexpectedly ignited. The bottle fell out of the teacher's hand and the opening fell facing the student he had relocated, setting her on fire.

I am sure the teacher had performed this experiment hundreds of times without incident and since he was so familiar with its outcome, he became complacent, much like we do in our everyday lives. This complacency can have dire consequences.

The student suffered burns to her face, right hand, right side of her torso and right leg. Eighteen percent of her body was burned. Many surgeries later and after much pain, the 16-year-old student realized that she was able to endure and make it through the worst of her circumstances. Her experience has changed her for the better. She now sees the importance of telling people she cares about them, as often as possible, because they too might one day fall victim to potentially fatal circumstances like hers. She thinks it is important to give back to others and is now actively involved in social work. She has worked with children at burn camps as a role model and as a survivor who has endured a similar experience.

The first and greatest lesson of all to learn from this accident is to be conscious of fire safety in every aspect of our lives. This is especially true in a high-risk environment such as a chemistry lab, but also in our daily routines, where complacency can become a dangerous habit. These burn survivors I recently met - and their fellow students and teachers - learned a valuable lesson in their lab classes. It may not have been the lesson that was supposed to be taught that day, but it is one that will stay with them forever.

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