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Dinwiddie chemistry class did not follow federal safety recommendations

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Posted at 4:29 PM, Oct 20, 2022

DINWIDDIE COUNTY, Va. -- A Dinwiddie High School chemistry class did not follow several of the recommendations made by the United States Chemical Safety Board (CSB) in the wake of three serious incidents where kids were burned during science demonstrations using methanol.

The CSB is an independent, nonregulatory federal agency that investigates the root causes of major chemical incidents.

The three demonstrations occurred in Nevada, Colorado and Illinois, and prompted the CSB to issue a safety bulletin back in 2017 after their safety board investigated each incident.

Here are those recommendations:

  • Due to flash fire hazards and the potential for serious injuries, do not use bulk containers of flammable chemicals in educational demonstrations when small quantities are sufficient
  • Employers should implement strict safety controls when demonstrations necessitate handling hazardous chemicals — including written procedures, effective training, and the required use of appropriate personal protective equipment for all participants
  • Conduct a comprehensive hazard review prior to performing any educational demonstration
  • Provide a safety barrier between the demonstration and the audience

WTVR CBS 6 asked Dinwiddie's superintendent of schools and Fire and EMS chief if those recommendations were followed prior to the accident last Wednesday.

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Chief Dennis Hale said a bulk-sized container of methanol was used, and there was no shield in place at the time of the demonstration, which both go against the CSB guidance.

Superintendent Dr. Kari Weston said at a press conference on Wednesday that students told investigators personal protective equipment was not used during the demonstration, which is also not in line with CSB guidance.

Weston said it is not standard protocol not to use protective equipment.

She also said Dinwiddie follows recommendations from the Virginia Department of Education for safety during labs.

She said all educators and students go through annual training, and the teachers are supposed to follow a self-assessment checklist prior to demonstrations.

However, she said they do not need to get the demonstrations approved by an administrator.

"Currently there is no formal process where they would have to come before administration or central office to have that be approved. That is something we will be looking at going forward," Weston said.

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WTVR CBS 6 reached out to Henrico, Richmond and Chesterfield schools to find out if methanol is used in their classrooms.

A spokesperson for Henrico Schools said:

"Methanol is allowed in chemistry classrooms in Henrico County Public Schools; however, there is a strict policy of no open flames present with flammable chemicals. If methanol is used in a chemistry class, it is only used to show the evaporative rate. We also encourage teachers to use a less flammable solution such as ethanol in those labs.

"All teachers are asked complete a risk assessment prior to every lab experiment performed and evaluate the value of the instructional experience to potential safety concerns. In addition, all science teachers are expected to review safety procedures, locations of safety equipment, discuss the need for PPE and actively monitor and support lab safety during experiments."

A spokesperson for Richmond Schools said:

"Methanol is used in our division. It is not a banned substance, but like all flammable chemicals, it is only used in RPS in extremely controlled environments - under a fume hood, not in enclosed containers, etc.

"Attached is a copy of our Chemical Hygiene Plan. The safety of our students is our top priority and we take these safety precautions very seriously.

"We have already reached out to all of our chemistry teachers to emphasize these protocols in response to the Dinwiddie incident. They are all very aware of the safety implications regarding any flammable substance."

A spokesperson for Chesterfield Schools sent this Science and STEAM Safety Guide in response to our questions.

Depend on CBS 6 News and WTVR.com for complete coverage of this important local story. Anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.

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