Chemical safety affirmed

Nov. 13, 2003, midnight | By Izaak Orlansky | 18 years, 6 months ago

A chemical spill at a Washington, D.C., public high school last month brought reassurances from the Blair science department that a chemical-related emergency would be extremely unlikely at Blair. School officials identified some problem areas but maintained that safety guidelines are being upheld.

Students at Ballou High School stole about half a pint of pure mercury, which is toxic and can cause damage to the respiratory and central nervous systems, from an unlocked storage area on Oct 2 and spread it throughout the school. The incident closed school for more than four weeks and is expected to cost the school system more than $1 million for clean-up and decontamination, according to school officials.

Science Resource Teacher Jennifer Kempf said Blair teachers removed all mercury from their classrooms in 1998 to comply with federal and state regulations. "We are as near to mercury-free as we can possibly be,"
she said.

However, some mercury thermometers were still being found as late as the spring of last year, as the science department finished unpacking materials from its 1998 move out of the old Blair building, according to both Kempf and AP Chemistry teacher Melanie Rock. These thermometers were never distributed to students.

Although Kempf stressed her satisfaction with the current policy, she also identified key obstacles in ensuring chemical safety. Kempf said that school classrooms have too many students. While the American Chemical Society recommends 24 students per chemistry class, some classes now have upwards of 33 students.

Kempf said Blair has a strict policy regarding chemical access. Chemicals are stored in locked facilities that can only be accessed by chemistry teachers. A "three-key" policy is also in effect: To get to a storage facility, teachers must go through a locked classroom and locked prep room before reaching the storage facility.

In storage facilities, strong acids and bases that have the potential to do harm are placed on opposite sides of the room, which Rock said is based on recommendations by FLYNN, Inc., a chemical supply company. In addition, teachers usually dilute chemicals before allowing students to use them in labs.

A variety of safety equipment is also provided at Blair. Safety blankets, eyewashes, ventilated hoods and spill kits are located in each chemistry room. Safety showers with enough water to douse a student three times are also situated in each room, according to MCPS Science Supervisor Michael Szesze. However, Kempf noted that the safety showers have never been tested and that plans are underway to test them in the near future.

Kempf said that keeping "tight reins" on chemical storage was both a student safety consideration and a financial one. "We don't have the money to deal with the aftermath, never mind the health consequences," she said.

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Izaak Orlansky. Izaak Orlansky is a senior in the Communications Arts Program. His hobbies include cross-country running, swimming, and singing in the spring musical. Izaak is also a big fan of the Yankees, and likes playing with big fluffy dogs. More »

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