Investigator: Teacher untrained in methanol danger

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DENVER (AP) — A Denver teacher had no special training in the dangers of methanol before he conducted a demonstration in a school laboratory that resulted in a fire and injuries to three students, a federal investigator said Tuesday.

The teacher was not aware of methanol's potential for flash fires, said Mark Wingard, an investigator with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which looks into chemical accidents.

Wingard said the teacher was demonstrating methanol's burning properties, and when the flame did not rise as high as he expected, he added more methanol from a container holding four liters, or about a gallon.

Wingard said a 4-foot-long flame then erupted and struck one student in the chest, causing serious injuries.

The fire occurred Monday at the Science, Math and Arts Academy, a charter high school in southwestern Denver. School officials identified the teacher as Daniel Powell.

Powell didn't immediately return a phone message Tuesday, and school spokeswoman Lindsay Neil couldn't immediately say whether Powell had specialized training on methanol.

The student who was struck by the flame was hospitalized, Wingard said. Three others who were nearby were treated for exposure to heat and released. Powell suffered minor injuries but declined treatment.

Powell was put on paid administrative leave and the school suspended lab experiments involving chemicals or flammable materials.

It was the second methanol fire in 12 days linked to a science demonstration. Thirteen people, many of them children, were hurt in a flash fire at a Reno, Nevada, museum on Sept. 3.

In both cases, the demonstrator was working with a 4-liter container of methanol — far more than was needed, Wingard said. Officials said the chemical is commonly sold in that size container.

Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the Chemical Safety Board, said many teachers are not aware of methanol's potential for flash fires. The threat is similar to gasoline, he said.

"If people knew that gallon containers could be brought into a classroom, they would be horrified," he said.

Wingard said the board knows of 11 incidents since 2000 in which methanol resulted in fires during a science demonstration.

The board issued a warning Monday against using methanol in laboratory and school demonstrations, but Horowitz stopped short of advocating an outright ban. He said Monday's warning was aimed primarily at the use of large quantities of methanol.


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