CSB: Discontinue Use of Bulk Methanol during Lab, Classroom Combustion Demonstrations

Published September 24, 2014

Following a flash fire in a Reno, Nev., museum that injured visitors viewing a science demonstration, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is warning schools, museums, and science educators against the use of bulk methanol in demonstrations that involve combustion, open flames, or ignition sources. Because methanol can ignite at room temperature in the presence of an ignition source, CSB says, it creates an unacceptable risk of flash fire as well as a significant risk of flashback to any nearby methanol bulk container. The incident in Reno occurred during a version of the “fire tornado” demonstration where boric acid was to be burned in the presence of a methanol-soaked cotton ball.

“There are safer alternative ways to demonstrate the same scientific phenomena, and many teachers are already using them,” said CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso. “Any use of methanol or other flammables should be either avoided completely or restricted to minimal amounts, which have been safely dispensed at remote locations.”

CSB notes that the incident in Reno is similar to several others that have occurred in the U.S. during lab or classroom demonstrations where methanol has been used. In December 2013, the agency released a video featuring an interview with an accident survivor who was burned over 40 percent of her body during a high school chemistry demonstration. The “rainbow” experiment, which used highly flammable methanol, was meant to show how various mineral salts produce different colored flames when burned.

Just this year, another high school student in New York City was severely burned by a methanol fire during another demonstration of the rainbow experiment.

Visit CSB’s website to learn more.