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School Lab Horror Stories

I taught for 28 years in three schools in England and Ire

When you teach chemistry in a high school you get used to strange questions and donations.

Questions like, “How does water divining work?”,or “My Dad says he wants you to give me a recipe for gunpowder for him to make his own fireworks.”

People in industry used to use schools as dumping grounds for broken down machinery or hazardous chemicals. A knowledgeable chemistry teacher would have turned away these “gifts”, but very often they were just left at the school office, in a sealed box.

On one occasion the secretary phoned me and said there were two enormous boxes that had been left by a parent for the Chemistry Department. It turned out to be a spectrophotometer. Now don’t get me wrong. A spectrophotometer is an extremely useful piece of equipment, when it works. This one did not work at all.

One of my students came from a very odd scientrific family. I spoke to her father and he said to drop it off to his house and he would have a look at it. When the front door opened the hall was 4 feet high with boxes of all shapes and sizes. Our spectrophotometer is still there fifteen years later.

On another occasion a school laboratory technician was tidying a cupboard under a sink. She brought me a polythene bottle labelled HF. HF is hydrofluoric acid, an extremely nasty acid, that dissolves skin and glass, amongst other things. This bottle had been there for at lesat 25 years, and nobody could remember where it came from. The school would never have bought it because it is totally unsuited for use in a school laboratory.

Looking under a sink in my first teaching job I found 3 enormous sweet jars full of what looked like sticks of rock (candy). There was no label on the jars, so I asked the Head of Chemistry what it was. “Phosphorus”, he says. I argued with him that we would never use 100grams, let alone the 10Kg that we had. “It was free, a parent brought it to parents’ evening and gave it to the department, so we cannot throw it away.” Phosphorus is another very nasty material that is absorbed by the body and incorporated into bones, causing them to lose their rigidity. It is also the prime ingredient of incendiary devices, and we had 10Kg of it stored in an unlocked cupboard!

The same head of department was not knowledgeable about Chemistry, though. On one occasion I heard screams coming from his lab, so I went through the connecting door, to find purple smokew coming from an oven on a side desk. The guy was only drying iodine in an oven. He had gone off for a cigarette, leaving the class in the room. Iodine changes directly from a solid to a gas, and back again when it cools down. It causes respiratory distress and if it crystallises on the cornea of the eye can cause blindness.

In the same school, in 1975, we were using asbestos mats and gauzes, and had asbesstos fire blankets. The Principal refused to give us money to replace this poteaially harmful equipment with safer glass fibre alternatives. The school had enough money to replace 800 bibles and prayer books every year, but would not find the money to replace worn out and unsafe asbestos equipment.

Flammable liquids such as ethanol, hexane and ether should, by law, be stored in ventilated and clearly marked cupboards with trays at the bottom to catch any spilled liquid. In my third school, I found a walk in cupboard with 2 litre bottles of each of these highly flammable liquids stored on an open shelf, directly above oxidising agents that they would react with if spilled. The door to this cupboard was never locked and students were routinelyt left in the room with no teacher.

Submitted by:

Ciara McGrath

Ciara McGrath taught Chemistry for 28 years and has set up three labs. Find more articles here. For more lab info visit Asbestos or Flammable Liquids.




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