Burned by Science: Understanding the Danger of Flame Jetting

by | July 22, 2019

Imagine this horrific scenario: You hug your son or daughter as they head out the door to school. Hours later you get a call from the principal. Your child has been severely burned in a science classroom demonstration and is being transported to a burn center. Later, as you’re caring for your child at the hospital burn unit, you learn this “accident” has occurred in schools across the country—and it was entirely preventable.

Unfortunately, this scenario is all too real. In fact, numerous organizations have issued national warnings directing teachers to stop conducting the experiment. But the word just isn’t getting out and students continue to get burned. Even many fire and rescue personnel aren’t aware of the dangers.

Consider these cases:

The students were injured by flame jetting, a phenomenon that occurs when the vapors from a container with a flammable liquid (like gas or alcohol) ignite, causing the container to turn into a kind of flamethrower, propelling a blast of fire that can extend as far as 10 or 15 feet. The jetting occurs in the blink of an eye.

How It Happens

Flame jetting can happen over campfires or in bars. And at least 15 incidents of flame jetting in educational institutions have happened in the last eight years, most of them injuring groups of children. The real number of these incidents is believed to be much higher, because many people don’t understand the phenomenon and there is no organized reporting structure to track the events.

The traditional Rainbow Experiment, which uses alcohol, is the most common experiment that leads to flame jetting injuries in a classroom setting. In the traditional version of the experiment, teachers soak bowls of metal salts in a flammable alcohol and light them on fire, producing different colored flames like the colors of the rainbow. Flame jetting can occur when the fire appears to go out and a teacher attempts to restart it. Alcohol flames may be invisible with normal lighting, so if a teacher mistakenly thinks the flame is extinguished and begins to pour more alcohol to rekindle it, that invisible flame can ignite the vapors in the bottle and turn it into a flame thrower, shooting fire toward students who are watching. In many flame jetting cases, teachers report conducting the experiment countless times before, without incident.

Because of the inherent risks associated with pouring a flammable liquid near a flame, numerous organizations, including the American Chemical Society, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Investigation Board and the National Science Teacher Association, have issued warnings against conducting the experiment using flammable liquid. (There are safer versions of the experiment that do not involve using alcohol.)

Other experiments like the Whoosh Bottle and Fire Tornado also have led to injuries.

Getting the Message Out

As a fire service leader, what can you do to keep your children and others in your local schools safe from the danger of flame jetting?

Make sure local school districts know about the warnings against the Rainbow Experiment and other demonstrations involving the use of alcohol or other flammable liquids with open flames. Take time to write a letter or send an email to your local parent-teacher organization, principals, science teachers and/or school district officials. For a simple template you can customize, click here.

It’s also important to make sure local schools review laboratory safety and students and teachers know what they should do in the event of a lab mishap. In the incident that occurred at Woodson High in Fairfax, Va., the experiment was not conducted under a safety hood and neither the teacher nor the students were wearing safety glasses or other safety equipment. In fact, no one thought to use the emergency shower, fire blanket or fire extinguisher in the classroom to help the students who were on fire. One burned student ran out of the classroom and down the hallway to use a water fountain to extinguish burning clothing.

In many flame jetting cases, teachers report conducting the experiment countless times before, without incident.

Familiarize school officials with guidelines from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). NFPA 45: Standard on Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals, Chapter 12, outlines safety precautions that should be taken when conducting experiments like those mentioned. To minimize the risk of students being burned or injured, schools should provide a barrier or separation between the students and the demonstration and keep bulk containers of flammable liquids out of the lab during demonstrations.

You also can help spread the word by letting your community media outlets know about the danger of flame jetting. The ATF has several publicly available videos that provide great visuals for broadcast media, and the subject has a timely news hook during back-to-school coverage or Fire Prevention Week.

Don’t hesitate to share risks of flame jetting when you are asked to speak to local citizen groups. Posts on your department’s Facebook and Twitter pages can also get the word out. Just remember the average person doesn’t need to understand the science behind how the jetting occurs. Providing too much technical information can cause people to get confused and lose interest, and then miss the key message. Teachers, administrators and parents simply need to understand that bottles containing flammable liquids can turn into flame throwers—and what to do differently to avoid this risk.

Take proactive steps to ensure the safety of students in your schools. Ask questions and demand solid answers before your own child participates in classroom or summer camp science projects. Now that you understand the risks, make sure more children don’t get burned by science.

If you hear of an incident you think may be flame jetting or have a question, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at mcnamara@prepglobal.org.

For more on how your agency can plan, train and communicate for complex emergencies, visit Preparedness Global.

Connie McNamara is a founding partner of Preparedness Global and has more than 30 years of experience in strategic communication and crisis response. McNamara has served as a senior leader in a variety of organizations and has handled communications around complex situations involving natural disasters, finance and civil and criminal investigations. A former journalist, she has presented on communications at national and international conferences.

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