• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Safer Schools

Air Date: Week of

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file

There are regulations that govern how schools manage the chemicals in their science labs and storage closets. But that hasn’t stopped old and even dangerous products from piling up. Reporter Kim Motylewski looks at what some school districts are doing to clean up their toxic waste.


CURWOOD: In most school districts, the law mandates that inventories be kept of all chemicals, whether they’re found in the science lab or in the janitor’s closet. It also stipulates that these chemicals must be disposed of safely, and that staff be trained to handle hazards. But until recently, many districts have ignored the law. Kim Motylewski reports on the problem of chemical mismanagement in schools and what’s being done about it.


MOTYLEWSKI: Mike Colombo unclips a heavy key ring from his belt and opens the door to a biology storage closet at the Dennis Yarmouth Regional High School on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

COLUMBO: Starfish, brains--I don’t know what I think about that one--sharks, clams, pigs-- oh, my God.

MOTYLEWSKI: Columbo is the facilities manager at the school. Just a few years ago, he says the shelves in this specimen closet looked very different.

COLUMBO: These were basically filled floor-to-ceiling with dozens and dozens of containers that went back to the 50s. In the last three or four years, they have just been combed through and inventoried, and the real bad stuff removed. They’ve come a long way.

MOTYLEWSKI: Columbo is one of several key players in a cleanup effort spearheaded by Marina Brock of the Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment.

BROCK: Some of the chemicals we pulled were 80, 100 years old. Things don’t last forever, you know.

MOTYLEWSKI: Brock rallied many to her cleanup cause, school administrators, fire departments and teachers in 15 communities.

BROCK: We found enough to bring the bomb squad down to 16 different schools on the Cape and detonated material that wasn’t purchased as a reactive material, but, by virtue of being poorly managed over time, became reactive.

MOTYLEWSKI: In all, 65 tons of hazardous wastes were removed from science, art and maintenance departments, autobody, boat building and carpentry shops all over Cape Cod. Brock says, the chemicals fell into all classes of hazard: flammable, reactive, infectious, toxic, corrosive, even radioactive.

Cape Cod schools are by no means unique. Nationwide, scores of individual school districts have launched cleanup efforts. Maine, Ohio and Colorado have taken a statewide approach. And more often than not, organizers find incredible things. In Colorado, seven schools turned up radioactive uranium, including one with a slice of so-called "yellow cake," a concentrated form of the stuff used to make nuclear fuel.

The reasons why such huge and hazardous stockpiles accumulate in schools are complicated, says Marina Brock. For one, school budgets often discourage efficient spending.

BROCK: You know, a certain budget can only be expended on a certain thing. So if you have a chemical purchasing budget, you can’t--if you have an excess of money, you can’t buy extra textbooks.

MOTYLEWSKI: And if you don’t spend all the money you were allocated this year, you’ll get less next year. So teachers, custodians, and office managers spend down and stock up on chemicals year after year. Poor building design and poor communication compound the overbuying.

BROCK: Some schools, there is no centralized storage of chemistry lab chemicals, so each room or group of rooms might have their own chemical storage room. And without inventory, you would have duplicate purchasing all over.

MOTYLEWSKI: In fact, 80 to 90 percent of materials removed from Cape Cod schools had never been opened. The solution, experts say, is strong leadership that can put the breaks on uncontrolled buying and insist on safer, smarter curricula.


MOTYLEWSKI: In this high school chemistry lab in Limestone, Maine, the students measure and stir to the sounds of Frank Sinatra. The Maine School for Science and Mathematics is a publicly funded magnet school that’s designed its curriculum with health and safety issues in mind. Today, the air smells spicy, thanks to one of the experiments in progress.

DOUGAN: They’re isolating two organic compounds, caffeine and eugenol. Eugenol is the active ingredients in cloves.

MOTYLEWSKI: David Dougan teaches this biochemistry class. He’s also an industrial hygienist. In his off-hours, he consults to schools on chemical health and safety.

DOUGAN: I’ve audited 600 school districts in New England and New York, and currently manage 22 different school districts in the state of Maine.

MOTYLEWSKI: That management involves auditing chemical inventory, coordinating waste disposal, providing safety equipment, and, most importantly, keeping track of every chemical purchase made by the school.

Dougan has seen everything from simple ignorance to gross neglect, like the potential dirty bomb he found recently at one school. A busted container of nitric acid, which tends to self-ignite, was shelved right next to thorium nitrate, which is radioactive. Dougan knows what needs to change in the storage room and the classroom, but he says, more safety doesn’t mean less learning.

DOUGAN: Essentially, there’s no curriculum change. You can do the same type of experiment just using a safer material.

MOTYLEWSKI: Here’s an example. There’s a classic chemistry experiment in which students determine the amount of water in a crystal of salt.

DOUGAN: Some people are still using barium chloride hydrated compound, which is toxic; .8 grams may be lethal. But by switching to, essentially, Epsom salt, which is relatively non-toxic, they can get the same results and not have to worry about the hazards of storing the material or the wastes.

MOTYLEWSKI: There are dozens of substitutions like this in the sciences, as well as the visual arts, visual maintenance, and grounds keeping. Where substitution is not possible, as in much of organic chemistry, Dougan follows a second principle, shrink experiments to a micro-scale.


MOTYLEWSKI: Mr. Dougan’s student Benjamin Dow is synthesizing a sulfa drug in a mini-glass vial. Working under an enclosed exhaust hood, he’s just added a tiny amount of chlorosulfonic acid to the vessel.

DOW: Look what it does to the paper. It’s starting to burn the paper.

MOTYLEWSKI: The acid is dangerous, and an indispensable part of this work. But the students are using 1/30 the amount that’s typically used. The amount of waste produced is that much smaller, as well. As a result, David Dougan expects his school will contract for waste disposal only once every 15 years. And Dougan says, retooling a typical high school lab for micro-scale is cheap.

DOUGAN: For a 20-student class, maybe $200 worth of equipment, and probably three to four hundred dollars with of non-hazardous chemicals, unless they’re already in stock.

MOYTLEWSKI: Compare that to waste disposal, which runs five to thirty thousand dollars per district every time it’s needed. So why don’t schools adapt? None of these changes sound hard. But, Dougan says, most people want to do the same things year after year.

DOUGAN: There’s a hassle in changing over. You’ve got to rewrite your labs or get new lab books. So there’s an inertia to a system.

MOTYLEWSKI: Unfortunately, it often takes an accident to break that inertia, but school advocates needn’t wait for that. Parents in one Massachusetts town formed a safety committee and presented the superintendent with a photo album of obvious problems. Others have gotten help from fire, health or environment departments when appeals to school leaders failed. The goal in every case is a safer school and a healthy respect for chemical hazards among staff and students, such as Alex Dizmore.

DIZMORE: It’s like working with a wild animal that has its cage and its leash. And as long as you keep a good hold on the leash and you know where you’re putting your feet, you’ll be all set.

MOTYLEWSKI: For Living on Earth, I’m Kim Motylewski in Limestone, Maine.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth