By. Laura Anderko and Emma Pennea
A new school year – and it is time to consider cleaning your closets! What, you might ask? It is important for schools to conduct an annual review of the chemicals stored in their facilities and now is a good time.
There have been a number of reported incidents concerning students and teachers who were harmed due to an absence of a chemical safety plan. For example, in 2015, the Washington Post (2015) reported on an incident at a Fairfax County, Virginia high school when a chemistry demonstration went out of control. A “flash of flame engulfing a group of students” left two with serious burns and sent three others to the hospital.
The health and safety risks associated with chemical exposures are dependent on many factors, including the chemical’s hazard level (degree of flammability, toxicity, etc.), the route of exposure (e.g., absorbed through skin, inhaled, consumed, injected), and the duration of exposure.
Questions to ask include:
- Are there dangerous chemicals in your school?
- What can schools do to prevent harm and costly incidents?
The Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment (MACCHE), a Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) has worked closely with schools over the past two years to create materials that can assist them in conducting inventories, cleaning out chemicals safely, and creating chemical safety management plans. Five steps are needed to get started:
- Conduct an inventory. MACCHE offers a toolkit that has a variety of aids that can be used including a video on how to conduct an inventory and a checklist.
- Determine what chemical hazards exist. For example, storing chemicals in food containers (e.g., peanut butter jars), unlabeled containers, labels in arcane or foreign language, chemicals stored improperly, etc.
- Make plans to dispose of unsafe chemicals. Schools must comply with regulations regarding the management, transport, and disposal of hazardous waste. The MACCHE toolkit offers regulations for Region 3 states.
- Establish a chemical safety plan for your school. Consider creating a team that monitors the purchase, disposal, labeling, and storage of chemicals in your school. When one person is responsible, no one knows how to handle problems during days off. Often, the task is entirely abandoned at retirement or if that person moves to another school. The toolkit offers a chemical safety poster with three key reminders, as well as emergency contact information.
- Develop a plan for purchasing. Many schools purchase more chemicals than they need (e.g., better pricing). It is useful to consider the actual chemical supply needs for educational purposes and order only what will be used that academic year. The MACCHE toolkit offers a “Do Not Buy List” of chemicals that are unsafe and should not be used in the school setting.
MACCHE invites schools to explore the toolkit and reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions and/or to request some School Chemical Safety magnets.
We are offering a short video to teachers and students that outlines the key components of chemical safety that is designed to be viewed as a part of any chemistry course. This short video will be available on our website beginning September 1, 2017.
We encourage you to share it in your classrooms and keep our schools safe!
Laura Anderko PhD RN, Professor and Scanlon Endowed Chair and Director, Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment, Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies is an educator and scholar in public and environmental health. In 2013, Dr. Anderko was honored by the White House with the Champion of Change award for her work in climate change and public health.
Emma Pennea, BA is Center Manager for the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment and coordinates the School Chemical Clean Out program. She has worked closely with schools to develop relevant educational and safety materials.