Federal Investigators Looking Into Chemistry Class Fire at Woodson High School

Federal investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board are looking into Friday's chemistry class fire at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax County, Virginia.

The investigators are questioning school officials and launching their formal "incident screening process." 

School officials and agency leaders declined to specify the specific focus of the investigation, but the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it's also considering expanding its warnings about the use of flammable chemicals in science experiments because of the fire, which injured five students and a teacher. Two of those students were burned so badly that they had to be airlifted from the scene.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is an independent agency charged with investigating chemical accidents. The agency has not yet sent investigators to Woodson High School, the News4 I-Team has learned, but is considering launching an official investigation into the fire and explosion. If and when the agency initiates an official investigation, the review can last six to twelve months and lead to recommendations for changes in federal safety regulations.

A spokeswoman for the board says the agency cannot issue a citation or fine, but it can make safety recommendations. 

The fire occurred Friday morning in a chemistry class at the Fairfax School, as a teacher was conducting a demonstration for students about the different colors of fire.

An exercise often known as "the rainbow experiment" has previously left students in other states with serious injuries and should not be performed in classrooms, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and the American Chemical Society. The experiment shows how various mineral salts produce flames in different colors when mixed with highly flammable methanol.


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It's not clear whether the Fairfax teacher was performing this particular experiment.

However, on Monday, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) suspended the use of open flames in science classes, said Superintendent Karen Garza.

An agency spokeswoman for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said the board just recently issued a warning against the use of bulk containers of flammable chemicals during educational demonstrations. The spokeswoman said the warnings were issued "exactly one year prior to the accident at Woodson High School." 

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said they don't have the power to issue a citation or fine against FCPS, but instead makes safety recommendations to prevent future incidents.

"Recommendations are typically issued to a variety of parties, including government entities, safety organizations, trade unions, trade associations, corporations, emergency response organizations, educational institutions, and public interest groups," the spokeswoman said.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) -- an organization representing federal environmental agency employees -- said the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) should have already sent investigators to school grounds to review the fire.

"A thorough, independent root-cause investigation is the key if we are to prevent these tragic burn injuries from happening again to other kids in other schools," PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch told the I-Team. "It's not good enough just to speculate about teacher training and safety procedures, there needs to be a transparent public investigation by professional accident investigators."

A FCPS spokesman said, "We have been contacted by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and are responding to their inquiries."

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