Cluster of Flash Fires Involving Methanol Used for Science Demonstrations

by Super User
in Safety
on March 10 2015
Hits: 2459

Dateline:  March 2015

In a period of five weeks, there were three separate incidents in which children were burned when science demonstrations involving methanol burst into flames.   Each of the demonstrations used salts to generate colored flames from the burning of the methanol.


The first incident was in Reno, Nevada at the Terry Lee Wells Discovery Museum in September of 2014.  The “Fire Tornado” demonstration featured a spinning tray with cotton balls soaked in methanol that created a twisting fire with different colors.  In this particular day, the cotton balls did not ignite, so the demonstrator poured more methanol

directly from the gallon bottle into the tray.  The methanol quickly flashed back into the bottle and caused a significant fire.


The second accident happened just 12 days later at the SMART Academy in Denver Colorado.  This demonstration was of the flammable properties of chemicals and was supposed to involve just a small pan of methanol.  When the fire was not enough for the students to see, the teacher poured from the full bottle of methanol directly onto the fire.  The resulting flash fire about 12 feet in diameter burned 4 children, one seriously.


The third event was at a Cub Scout gathering in Raymond Illinois on October 20th, where methanol was poured from a bottle onto some boric acid near an open flame.  The demonstration was supposed to produce a vivid green flame, but instead the resulting flashback fire burned several people and hospitalized one boy with serious burns.  

Mistakes Made

  1. Demonstrators were not made aware of the possibility of flash fires.
  2. Poorly developed  hazard analysis of the demonstrations.
  3. Demonstrations carried out too close to spectators.
  4. No barriers between demonstration and the spectators.

Regulations Violated

  1. Job Hazard Analysis at 29 CFR 1910.132.  There was no JHA conducted or the JHA was inadequate.
  2. HazCom Standard at 29 CFR 1910.1200.  Demonstrators not informed of the hazards and measure to protect themselves (and others).
  3. General PPE Requirements at 29 CFR Subpart I.  Inadequate protective measures and training.



  1. Make employees familiar with characteristics of an alcohol fire.
  2. Always pour from the smallest possible bottle.
  3. Have spill control equipment, fire extinguishers and eyewash/shower stations handy.
  4. Careful development of procedures and training of demonstrators.


Original Story:  CSB - Methanol Fires

CSB Safety Bulletin:  CSB - Flammable Chemicals in Education

CSB Video:  After the Rainbow


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Be ready for the eventual and it could prevent injuries or damage.

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