Monday, September 15, 2014

CSB Warning Against Use of Methanol During Lab Experiments After a Nevada Museum Fire

CBS has issued a statement urging all schools, museums and science educators to discontinue the use of methanol during laboratory and classroom combustion demonstrations. This statement follows an investigation a flash fire earlier this month at the Terry Lee Wells Discovery Museum (The Discovery) in Reno, NV.

CSB investigators spent two days examining data and reviewing safety procedures after nine people were hospitalized following the Sept. 3, 2014, flash fire at the museum. It was determined that the incident occurred during a “fire tornado” demonstration in which salts of different elements were combusted in a dish in the presence of alcohol-soaked cotton balls, while spinning on a lazy Susan-type rotating tray producing a tornado-like colored flame that rises in the air.

Methanol-soaked cotton balls where used for this version of the experiment, and when one of the cotton failed to ignite more methanol was added from a four-liter (one gallon) plastic bottle. Still likely smoldering, the cotton ball ignited the freshly added methanol and flashed back to the bottle. Burning methanol then sprayed from the bottle toward the audience of adults and children.

This incident is similar to a number of others that have occurred around the country during lab or classroom demonstrations where methanol has been used as a fuel for combustion.

Methanol readily emits heavier-than-air flammable vapors and the liquid has a low flash point, meaning it can ignite at room temperature in the presence of an ignition source. According to the agency, this creates unacceptable risk of flash fire whenever any appreciable quantities of methanol are handled in the open lab or classroom in the presence of pervasive ignition sources, such as open flames, heat sources or sparks. Flashback is another significant risk, as was the case in Reno, NV.

The recent incidents of methanol fires in schools are just one example of what can happen when lab demonstrations are used without a thorough review of the hazards or the development of robust safety procedures.

CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso urges all schools, museums and science educators to discontinue any use of bulk methanol – or other similar flammables – in lab demonstrations that involve combustion, open flames or ignition sources. Safer alternatives exist for demonstrating the same scientific phenomena. 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. 

Visit the CSB website for more information.