More than 160 students, teachers nationwide hurt in science experiments gone wrong

 WASHINGTON (SBG) — As many students return to in-person learning, experts are warning about a danger they could face in the classroom: not COVID-19, but a phenomenon known as flame jetting. It's already injured dozens of students and teachers across the nation in classroom science experiments gone terribly wrong.

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Joce Sterman, Alex Brauer and Andrea Nejman

Spotlight on America got a firsthand look at the phenomenon known as flame jetting from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives, going behind the scenes at the agency's Fire Research Laboratory in Maryland. As trained and equipped representatives from the ATF demonstrated, the phenomenon can turn a flammable liquid inside a container into a flame thrower, creating a wall of fire that shoots forward with an intense force, torching anything in its path.

According to Jonathan Butta with the ATF, it can happen when alcohols, especially methanol, are used in demonstrations involving an open flame. While the idea is to liven up classroom experiments and give a real-life application to a chemical concept, the results can be tragic. Butta explained, "It essentially turns a typical flammable liquid container into a flamethrower."

"We actually see the flame front propagate up the stream of flammable liquid into that container and expand those vapors and shoot those liquid droplets out with it," said Jonathan Butta with the ATF.

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The ATF demonstrates the stunning phenomenon known as flame jetting as it would happen in a classroom experiment gone wrong (Video: Alex Brauer)

Dozens of students across the country have actually seen flame jetting in action, with tragic consequences. W.T. Woodson High School in Virginia is just one example.

In 2015, a demonstration known as the "Rainbow Experiment" designed to show how burning different salts results in different colors, went wrong at the school. Experts say flame jetting occurred during the experiment, with the tragic outcome detailed in stunning photos. The incident left a classroom at Woodson High School charred and five students injured, including two who had to be airlifted to the hospital with serious burns. Just weeks after the incident, Nick Dache exclusively told our affiliate WJLA, "I think the whole thing was just a freak accident."

Dache actually stepped in to assist one of the students who was burned during the incident. As the young woman ran out of the classroom still on fire, Dache explained he chased her down and used his hands to scuff out the flames on her shirt.

"It almost looked like a blanket. Someone else described it as a fireball," student Nick Dache said of the aftermath of the Rainbow Experiment gone wrong in 2015. "I don't think that's completely accurate because that seems more violent. It got very widespread but it didn't seem super concentrated."

A charred backpack is found in a classroom after a lab accident went horribly wrong in Fairfax County, VA in 2015 (Photo: Virginia Occupational Safety and Health)

A similar flame jetting incident happened in Ohio in 2006, when student Calais Weber Biery was burned over 40 percent of her body during an experiment in her school's chemistry lab. She's featured in a 2013 Youtube video produced by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board called "After the Rainbow." The video, the organization said, was created in an effort to help prevent classroom accidents in chemistry labs.

"I remember thinking, 'I'm on fire, oh my gosh, I'm on fire,'" student Calais Weber Biery recalled in a Youtube video about the dangers of the Rainbow Experiment. "It's tragic and it shouldn't happen."

Spotlight on America has learned those two incidents are far from isolated. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Chemical Education, an arm of the American Chemical Society, found 164 children and teachers have been injured in classroom demonstrations using flammable solvents since 1988. Additionally, we discovered at least three additional incidents last year alone. Experiments where students and teachers have been injured have happened in the following states:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • New York
  • New Jersey
  • Nevada
  • North Carolina
  • Pennsylvania
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

Spotlight on America discovered at least 30 classroom science accidents where students and teachers were injured (Photo: Alex Brauer)

The real number of classroom accidents could actually be much higher because Spotlight on America has learned there's no requirement to report accidents to the US Chemical Safety Board, which along with the ACS, has done tremendous outreach, trying to improve experiment safety. In 2015, Kristen Kulinowski, a former member of the USCSB, talked with our affiliate WJLA about the number of accidents in classroom labs, calling them a significant problem. She said, "All of these incidents could have been prevented."

Courts in at least four states including Georgia, Florida, New York and Ohio have agreed, handing over millions in cases filed by students injured in fiery classroom experiments. In one of those cases, nearly $60 million was awarded to a high school student in New York who was badly burned and left with permanent scarring on much of his body as a result of an experiment gone wrong. The award was appealed but just this summer a judge upheld the jury's decision.

Five students were injured and a classroom charred after a flame jetting incident during a science experiment at WT Woodson High School in 2015 (Photo: Virginia Occupational Safety and Health)

For years, some safety advocates have called for banning experiments involving flammable solvents and open flames altogether, while others have lobbied for mandating specific safety protocols to protect students in the classroom. For its part, the ACS has dedicated an entire section of its website to provide resources for educators on how to safely conduct demonstrations and experiments in the classroom. Their efforts even include showing teachers a safe, alternative way to conduct the Rainbow Experiment without putting students at risk.

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