Chemicals in School Science Labs

Chemicals in School Science Labs

Learning science, including chemistry, is an important part of primary and secondary education. However, practical chemistry involves chemicals, some of which may be hazardous, particularly in the hands of young children. So how do we protect children and young people from chemicals, while not denying them the fun of experiments and the useful experience it gives them of risk assessment and management?

Recently, the Royal Society of Chemistry noted that there has been a decline in practical chemistry in UK schools, to the detriment of pupils. They attribute this to an over-emphasis on (and misunderstanding of) health and safety legislation. Very few substances are actually banned by legislation. What is more important is that a proper risk assessment is carried out. This would consider whether:

  • A chemical is safe enough to be handled by pupils (under supervision by a qualified teacher, maybe with the assistance of a technician).
  • The chemical should be handled in a fume cupboard.
  • The teacher or technician should demonstrate the experiment.
  • There is a safer substitute for the chemical.

There is plenty of advice available on chemicals in school science labs. There is CLEAPSS (formerly the Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Service) which is an advisory service covering science, art and design and technology in schools. They provide advice on specific chemicals and also some very useful risk assessments. Schools, like other premises, are also subject the COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) regulations and the Health and Safety Executive can provide detailed information on COSHH as it relates to school science.

There are some specific instances of chemicals in school science labs, and experiments carried out, that may cause parents particular concerns. Most of these are subject to risk assessment, rather than an outright ban. They include:

  • Mercury in thermometers: Mercury is a potent neurotoxin which can also cause kidney damage. If a thermometer is dropped and breaks, a child could be exposed to mercury vapour. Therefore the spill should be cleaned up immediately. Mercury thermometers are being phased out.
  • Peanuts: There is a classic physics experiment which involves burning a peanut which may be hazardous to children who have peanut allergy. There are safer alternatives.
  • Formaldehyde: Subject to risk assessment.
  • Bromine, benzene, crude oil and trichloroethylene are all banned from school laboratory use. Other solvents should be used in a fume cupboard and children made aware of toxicity and flammability.

Some children may be especially sensitive to chemicals in school science labs – if they suffer with asthma, or another allergy, for instance, or if they suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity. In such cases, parents/guardians should make sure the school is aware of the problem and they should work together to ensure that the child is properly protected, while not missing out on his or her science lessons.

The Royal Society of Chemistry, after careful consideration, believes that school chemistry does not pose a serious safety risk to children, provided that the school carries out a careful risk assessment. Indeed, children stand to benefit if they learn to handle chemical risks.

Like NHS and other research laboratories, school science labs can also benefit from compact school air filtration systems that target gaseous chemicals and other air contaminants – as for example, the IQAir GCX Series does.  These high-performance air cleaning systems can be used to add further resiliency to the protection measures already in place, and to protect those children who are sensitive to chemicals – for example, children suffering with asthma or multiple chemical sensitivity. Investing in your laboratory’s air quality can improve student performance, especially those sensitive to pollution.  Surely this is good both for the student and for the chemistry department?

For more information talk to one of the experts at Commercial Air Filtration on, 020 3176 0524 or send us an email.

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