October 27, 2022

CSB Highlights Hazards of Flammable Chemicals Following Fire at High School

After a fire occurred at a Virginia high school earlier this month during a classroom demonstration involving methanol, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) is urging schools to review and follow the agency’s guidance for preventing incidents from flammable chemicals used in educational demonstrations. The Oct. 12 fire at Dinwiddie High School injured several people, including three students and a teacher who were taken to hospitals for treatment. According to CSB, a fourth injured student was treated at the scene of the fire. Local news outlet WWBT NBC12 reported yesterday that the last student hospitalized for treatment has returned home. Another local news source, WRIC ABC 8News, reported previously on a press conference held by Dinwiddie County Public Schools and the county’s fire department, during which Dinwiddie County Fire and EMS Chief Dennis Hale provided details about the incident.

“The [flammable liquid] demonstration had been conducted once, and the teacher was in the process of adding additional methanol from an open, narrow-neck, one-gallon container,” Hale said. “As the methanol was poured, the methanol vapor at the bottle opening caused a phenomenon known as flame jetting.”

CSB is not investigating this incident, but stresses in a recent press release that “it is similar to other serious classroom fires that have been investigated by the agency where students and teachers were injured.” The previous incidents occurred during demonstrations of flames produced by burning methanol or another flammable liquid, CSB explains. In those cases, methanol was poured from bulk containers directly onto the flames, creating a flash back to the containers and causing the fires.

CSB urges schools to adopt the lessons learned from three such fires that occurred in 2014, which prompted the agency to publish a safety alert (PDF). The alert warns against the use of bulk containers of flammable chemicals during educational demonstrations when small quantities are sufficient. According to CSB, additional actions schools can take to prevent future incidents include implementing strict safety controls for demonstrations during which demonstrators will handle hazardous chemicals; conducting thorough hazard reviews prior to performing educational demonstrations; and providing safety barriers between demonstrations involving flammable chemicals and any audience.

For more information and additional resources, visit CSB’s webpage on preventing incidents from flammable chemicals in educational demonstrations.

Related: The January 2016 installment of The Synergist’s “By the Numbers” focused on alcohol fire incidents in schools, and in November 2018 the topic of “By the Numbers” was chemical safety incidents that occurred in laboratories during 2001–2018.