7 ON YOUR SIDE investigates potentially dangerous rainbow experiment

Kim Duncan from the American Chemical Society is demonstrating how the Rainbow Experiment can be in an alternative way, which experts say minimize the risk. (ABC7)

It's an experiment done in classrooms across the country. But as students and teachers discovered three weeks ago at a Fairfax County high school, it can have devastating results. The 7 ON YOUR SIDE I-Team found W.T. Woodson High School isn't the only place to experience the dark side of the so-called "Rainbow Experiment."

It is a spectacle of science, meant to engage students. You can see it in YouTube videos like this one:

Kristin Kulinowski with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board says, "It's pretty dramatic. It's colorful. And it's beautiful."

But she and other experts say the Rainbow Experiment is also extremely dangerous if it's done using flammable chemicals and an open flame. Kim Duncan, Professional Learning Associate with American Chemical Society, tells 7 ON YOUR SIDE, "They can cause really serious injury if they're not handled properly."

That's what happened last month at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax. Sophomore Nick Dache was in the classroom October 30th, when the experiment went out of control. He chased a burning classmate down the hall to put out her flaming body.

"Her shirt was just burning up and I tried to scuff it out with my hands," Dache said.

Dache spoke exclusively with the 7 ON YOUR SIDE I-Team about the day the Rainbow Experiment sent fire shooting toward the desks in his science lab. Two students were seriously injured, hospitalized for burns. Three others, including Dache, suffered minor injuries in the fire.

"It almost looked like a blanket," Dache said, "Someone else described it as a fireball. I don't think that's completely accurate because that seems more violent. It got very widespread but it didn't seem super concentrated."

The Woodson accident is not the first of its kind. Since 2014, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board knows of at least six mishaps across the country involving versions of the Rainbow Experiment. Kulinowksi, on the board of the CSB, says, "I would consider it a significant problem in the sense that all of these incidents could have been prevented."

The agency is pushing teachers and school districts to use a safer alternative. Kim Duncan with the American Chemical Society demonstrated it for 7 ON YOUR SIDE. That version is decidedly less flashy, but still proves the point.

"It reduces the risk considerably," Duncan said.

But the risk related to the Rainbow Experiment varies widely on how it's done and who performs the demonstration. 7 ON YOUR SIDE discovered there is no standard protocol for how to conduct the experiment. There is no specific safety standard. There's also no required reporting of accidents to the Chemical Safety Board after something goes wrong. And the training requirements differ from district to district.

Calais Weber Biery is trying to spark change on that front, saying, "There's currently is no safety training basic standardized safety training for chemistry teachers."

She is featured in a CSB video highlighting the risks of the rainbow experiment and the casualties. She was badly burned during the experiment.

"It exploded into this flamethrower effect," Weber Biery said, "I was hit head-on, completely engulfed in flames. I thought 'This is it'. The classroom was silent. I was still alone, still on fire and I was going to die."

Weber Biery wants the Rainbow Experiment shelved until there's better training. The I-Team wanted to know specifics about how Fairfax County Public Schools handles training for this demonstration. We pulled the district's Chemical Hygiene Plan and found science teachers and staff are responsible for "informing themselves" about health and safety risks associated with chemical experiments.

The district's spokesman would not answer specific questions about protocols in the plan, but told 7 ON YOUR SIDE safety training updates began last week.

Nick Dache and his family are glad to hear that. They feel the students should have gotten safety reminders immediately before the experiment in addition to basic safety training that was done at the start of the year.

"In a lab where you're using any kind of fire just there should be a routine," Dache said.

The family says it has nothing but love for the teacher involved in the Woodson accident. But they don't agree with the district's decision to ban experiments using open flames following the fire. Kathy Dache, Nick's mother, says, "My gut is don't ban the experiment. Just do it differently. Do it more carefully."

The I-Team found plans to create a "Chemical Safety Liaison" for the Fairfax County school district, which would meet with teachers, develop chemical emergency plans and write site specific safety guidelines.

We asked the district spokesman if that position was created and got no answer. The district indicated the temporary open flame ban will be lifted once all teachers are trained, by the end of the month.

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