Friday, October 19, 2012

Hidden Time Bombs in Schools

For over a week, I was at a conference on household hazardous waste in Los Angeles, California.  It turns out, I am definitely not an L.A. girl.  I arrived back home to Vermont, and I am relishing the chill of the oncoming autumn.   The conference was put on by the North American Hazardous Materials Management Association (NAHMMA).  It was excellent!  They did a fabulous job--especially the discussions about hazardous products in public and private schools.  Products are found throughout the schools in chemistry labs, art classrooms, and maintenance closets.

Chemistry Labs  

I already knew chemicals in labs were  a problem (because I'd watched a webinar by NAHMMA).  But it absolutely fascinates and horrifies me that outdated and unknown chemicals found in  schools can cause fires, explosions, spills and toxic human exposure. These incidents from poorly stored chemicals present a risk to children in addition to thousands of dollars in cleanup costs. 

These may be products that are currently in use, but also ones that are languishing behind other bottles of laboratory chemicals--waiting, just waiting for something bad to happen.  Those bottles have often been there for decades.
Picric acid really intrigues me because it is sensitive to sudden movement, heat, or friction.  So, if someone were to say drop a bottle of picric acid in the high school laboratory, there is potential that it could blow out the room.  Here's a YouTube video of an detonation of just 14 grams of pitric acid.  Imagine if there were a jar of this in the school!  (Pitric acid also intrigues me because they used to put it in vaginal suppositories.  What were they thinking?)

An ethyl ether YouTube video shows a violent explosion of another common chemical found in schools.  I guess a good chemistry laboratory may need some dangerous products to teach, but many schools overbuy or hoard dangerous products.  And with teachers leaving and new teachers coming in, the toxic load can increase.

Schools may or may not realize what they have.  Some schools go so far as to do a chemical inventory and obtain a cost estimate to get rid of these products from the school, but when they find out how expensive it is (it could be $4,000 for just one bottle of something especially dangerous), they leave it all where it sits.   So it's back to out of sight, out of mind--and the disposal cost is not going to go down by pretending those chemicals are not there. 

Schools have budgets like everyone and chemical disposal can be very expensive.  A "triage" might help the schools select the most dangerous chemicals to get rid of first so they don't bust the annual budget.

King County, Washington provides a Rehab the Lab program to help schools sort out their chemicals and keep the labs safer for kids.  They also provide lab safety videos.

Art Classrooms

Oil paints, pastels, acrylics, charcoal & graphite dust, markers and inks, spray adhesives, and clean-up solvents are part of the artistic and sometimes toxic potpourri in the art classroom.   

Art supplies can be so dangerous that the  California and Illinois  have legislation to limit toxic art supplies in schools.  They recognize that children cannot read the labels of products to see what they should be exposed to or not.  Paints and other art supplies can produce some of the most eloquent and thought-provoking art, but they can also be carcinogenic or cause allergic reactions while the artist is making her beautiful creations.

Photo Credit Link 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides guidance in purchasing nontoxic art supplies as does the Art and Creative Materials InstituteKing County, Washington provides great information on art supplies and selecting less toxic alternatives.


There are a lot of kids tramping through the school and going in and out at recess.  The cleaners tend to be more "heavy-duty" or toxic than at home.  But these cleaners do not have to be so toxic that they cause health problems such as aggravating or even causing asthma. 

For maintenance and other cleaning products, schools have resources such as the Green Schools Initiative, Cleaning for Healthy SchoolsGreen Clean Schools, and  The Environmental Working Group.  There are many web sites and resources for schools to green up their act and clean with nontoxic cleaning products that are not hazardous to children's health.

Photo Credit Link  

General Resources for Change

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognizes these problems and has developed the Toolkit for Safe Chemical Management Program. You can also check out the Green Schools Initiative

We can keep the kids safe while providing a good--and healthy education.

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