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Lab safety - beyond goggles

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 2003


In New Berlin, Wis., a giant fireball singes a teacher and eight students during a science experiment. In Tulsa, Okla., a mixture of potassium chlorate and sulfur rips away a counter and injures five. And in a classroom in Hyrum, Utah, glass flies when a jug of methanol explodes.

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As these recent incidents bear out, teenagers and chemicals can be a volatile mix. That hasn't stopped educators from advocating more hands-on experiments to make science more attractive to students. But in the midst of state budget cuts, overcrowded classrooms, and the threat of parental lawsuits, keeping science both interesting and safe is no easy feat.

Utah, North Carolina, and a number of other states have decided to update their classroom codes and hire safety experts to instruct teachers. But experts say that hundreds of American public schools still have lax enforcement of safety rules and many even lack basic protections such as safety goggles and working chemical exhaust hoods.

A recent safety study conducted in 10 states by researchers at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, shows that labs have become overcrowded. Thirty-two percent of science classrooms did not have eye-wash stations, and 18 percent did not have enough protective goggles for all students. About 46 percent of teachers said they've never received science safety training.

Studies and anecdotal evidence point to a rise in lab accidents in recent years. This can't be blamed on the new direction of science teaching, says Michigan State University professor James Gallagher, who helped write national science-teaching standards in 1996. But, he adds, "we clearly need to provide some instruction on how to design and implement activities that are safe for kids."

Some labs would need to be completely overhauled to be fit for 21st-century science. Before the recent renovation of their science wing, chemistry and biology teachers at Raleigh's Broughton High School had to make do with lab technology dating back to 1927. At rural schools, science budgets are sometimes hardly big enough to cover the cost of preserved perch for the midterm dissection exam.

"I've been to schools way out in the country where the science budget is $500 a year," says Fred Byers, a retired teacher who now sells safety equipment for Fisher Scientific. "Is that enough to make sure there's enough safety goggles in the room? Not in my book."

What some students fear most is not the lab setup but their fellow students, according to a recent study by the Clinton Scientific Trust. "One of the main dangers in the lab is silly people," one student said in the survey.

In Madison, Wis., one such student took the antics outside the lab. He stole a flask of mercury from a teacher's desk and poured it into the finger holes of bowling balls at the local alley, creating a mess that cost nearly $250,000 to clean up. A judge ordered the boy and his parents to reimburse that money.

Many science teachers hold back on experiments because of pressure from school officials who fear lawsuits. In Iowa, according to Drake researchers, accidents doubled and lawsuits tripled between 1993 and '96.