Virginia School Bans Open-Flame Science Labs After Accident


W.T. Woodson High School in Virginia’s Fairfax County was the location of a fire in its chemistry a week ago, leading the superintendent of one of the largest school districts in the country to suspend all science experiments that would include open flames, write Moriah Balingit, Justin Jouvenal, and T. Rees Shapiro of The Washington Post.

The fire occurred when a teacher used a flammable liquid to demonstrate how chemicals can change the color of a flame. Five students in the classroom were hospitalized, the teacher was burned, and all students were evacuated from the school. Students said no one was wearing protective garments.

Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Karen Garza said a review of the county’s curriculum would ensue and safety guidance education for teachers would occur. The county plans for security updates for all science teachers before the semester ends.

High school students will be most affected by the ban. Lab procedures in physics, biology, and chemistry classes all include open flames, said a veteran teacher.

The teacher repoured flammable liquid on a dying flame, causing a “splash of fire” to hit the observers. Two students were taken by helicopter to hospitals in the area, three students were taken to Inova Fairfax Hospital, and the teacher’s burns were minor. Officials described the fire as accidental.

The US Chemical Safety Board and the American Chemical Society say that “the rainbow experiment” that was the lab performed has left students with severe injuries and should not take place in classrooms.

“These demonstrations present an unacceptable risk of flash fires and deflagrations that can cause serious injuries to students and teachers,” the American Chemical Society said.

Calais Weber knows about preventable accidents like the one that happened at W.T. Woodson High School. Weber was 15-years-old when ten years ago the same event occurred in her chemistry class.

“It was called the rainbow experiment,” said Weber. “It was meant to show how different chemicals burn at different light frequencies, so the flames end up being different colors when you burn them.”

Her teacher took out a bottle of methanol at her desk in front of the classroom. She poured it into the open fire, reports Laura Evans for Fox 5 Washington, D.C. The flame exploded, and since Weber was in front of the experiment she bore the brunt.

She says the solution to the problem is proper training, the reduction of complacency, and increased knowledge.

“I really think there are teachers that for whatever reason don’t understand the chemical properties of methanol and exactly why it’s so dangerous and therefore don’t understand how to use it properly,” she said.

The flame burned Weber over 40% of her body and she was in the hospital for two and a half months. She was a model, so the accident changed her life dramatically. Weber has worked tirelessly to raise awareness so no one else will go through what she has endured.

But in the last year and a half there have been four accidents across the US like the one at Woodson that have injured over 20 people. Still, Weber continues working with lawmakers and educating students and parents.