Methanol flame tests are typically performed by placing 5–7 grams of a metal chloride in a glass Petri dish and then adding 7–10 milliliters (mL) of methanol. After turning down the lights, the instructor lights the mixture, and the class observes the flame test color. But demonstrators are cautioned not to add more methanol to the Petri dish after starting the demonstration—the mistake this teacher made.
The flame quickly traveled back up into the bottle and ignited the rest of the alcohol. Pressure built up within the bottle, as the temperature of the gases produced in this chemical reaction quickly increased, and the bottle spewed a fiery stream of alcohol at a distance of 12 feet (3.6 meters), hitting a student in the chest.
In September and October 2014, a total of 22 students and two adults were injured throughout the United States in four separate incidents involving methanol used in rainbow demonstrations.
Could these accidents have been prevented? Where can teachers (and students) find the type of information needed to use chemicals in a safe and responsible fashion? Fortunately, there is a system in place to provide ready access to this type of information. Every chemical has its own Safety Data Sheet (SDS), formerly known as a Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), containing a wealth of information in a simple, easy-to-read format. Especially prominent within each SDS are safety precautions needed to handle the chemical properly, as well as any potential health hazards.