Are science class injuries increasing?

Sep 28 2011 - 11:25am

CHICAGO -- Chemistry class accidents like the one at a Chicago area high school that recently injured a 16-year-old are relatively rare, but no federal or state agencies track such incidents, say experts.

The U.S. Department of Education and the Illinois State Board of Education don't record lab experiments gone awry, they said.

"No one really knows how often this occurs, but if it were happening routinely, students just wouldn't take these classes," said William Hunter, a chemistry professor at Illinois State University. "I probably hear about one incident every three to four years."

The issue of safety in the science classroom was highlighted recently when a student at Richards High School in Oak Lawn was injured after a plastic bottle containing dry ice and water exploded, according to a lawsuit filed this month in Cook County Circuit Court.

Dillon Mantia, 16, of Chicago Ridge, was in chemistry class on Sept. 13, when a teacher combined nuggets of dry ice and water in a plastic bottle, sealed it tightly and then instructed the students to pass it among themselves "to feel and observe the pressure building up" in the bottle, the lawsuit said.

But the vessel exploded while Dillon was holding it, resulting in "severe and permanent bodily injuries to his face and hands, irreparable loss ... of sight in his left eye," the lawsuit said. None of the students were wearing protective goggles, said court documents.

"When you're 16, you trust your safety to your teacher," said attorney James Pope, who is seeking more than $150,000 in damages for Dillon and his family.

The teen, who was on the honor roll last spring and played baseball, is being home-schooled by the district while recuperating from eye surgery, according to Burt Odelson, lawyer for Community High School District 218.

"No one knows if he has lost his eyesight ... it will take time to see how this will heal," said Odelson, estimating that it will be "three to four weeks" before any impairment is known.

The teacher -- who had been on staff for more than five years -- has since been placed on administrative leave while the accident is reviewed. Both school officials and the Illinois Education Association declined to comment further.

Odelson cited the infrequency of such mishaps, noting that he "couldn't find a single incident" in the last 12 years in the district, which has an enrollment of about 6,000 students.

Before science teachers can be certified, they must be trained in safety procedures consistent with guidelines by the National Science Teachers Association, a national professional organization.

To reduce injury, eye protection is required in a number of circumstances, including "when working with solid materials or equipment under stress, pressure or force that might cause fragmentation or flying particles," according to the NSTA web site.

An online search turned up only five accidents nationwide since 2004. When something does go wrong, it's almost always dealt with by the local school districts. Minor mishaps -- such as burned or cut fingers -- don't require filing an accident report and go unreported. But the overall low numbers are proof that that the level of oversight is sufficient, educators say.

"These incidents are so unusual ... which is why they always make headlines," explained Steve Long, who has been teaching chemistry since the 1970s and served on the NSTA safety committee. "Science teachers are better trained than ever before ... because our litigious society requires us to be."

As an extra precaution, faculty should test an experiment before demonstrating it in front of class, Long explained.

Safety isn't a one-way street, though. Students have a responsibility to follow classroom rules -- such as no loose clothing or flip-flops and tying back long hair, teachers said.

Nor is it tied to resources. Protective eyewear is a relatively inexpensive investment of just a couple bucks a pair and within reach of the most cash-strapped districts, Hunter said.

Ed Kang, who has taught science in Chicago at Clemente High School and now at Whitney Young High School, said an incident like the one at Richards makes everyone more mindful of what can go wrong.

"As teachers, we try our best to prevent injury, but also keep the content exciting," Kang said. "We try to ensure that the potential to cause harm does not outweigh the importance of the activity or demonstration."

(c)2011 the Chicago Tribune

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