Having just passed the halfway point of my internship, my outlook of the Integrated Chemistry Management (ICM) Program has changed. Initially, I was outraged at the blatant waste of resources spent on chemicals. Some schools had so many chemicals that they didn’t need to purchase any for another ten years. Outrage became acceptance, then resignation. The current school system enables a lack of accountability, knowledge and guidance with respect to chemical management, safety, disposal and protocol.
One school that stood out was Billerica High School. There a chemistry teacher explained that when she first came to the school there were many unknown and spent chemicals, which would be stored in a separate storage area. When teachers don’t know what to do with a chemical, they keep it. This trend carries on due to lack of accountability and oversight leading to an accumulation of RCRA hazardous waste and nonhazardous waste. She further shared that a new facility is being built in three years and that funding was allocated to ensure that the new chemistry labs and storage spaces meet current standards. Timing wise, it was best that Billerica reorganize their chemistry labs before moving to the new facility to avoid transporting old, banned and spent chemicals there.
The school may be the oldest I’ve visited so far this summer. The chemistry laboratories were quite grimy and there was an excess of everything from chemicals to glassware to over the counter products, materials and apparatus. It had lots of RCRA hazardous waste and banned apparatus including 60 mercury thermometers. Consolidating compounds and separating waste from remaining chemicals allowed me to make a number of observations and think about the work I’ve been doing this summer. I noticed that some of the most dangerous chemicals are the prettiest. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) lists a number of transition and heavy metals (metalloids), concentrated acids and bases, and alcohols as hazardous. They fall under the categories of corrosive, ignitable, toxic and reactive. All nitrate salts are considered RCRA hazardous waste because they are oxidizing agents. Chromium nitrate is an oxidizer and toxic. Other hazardous but colorful chemicals include copper sulfate (blue), cobalt chloride (pink), iron oxide (orange), potassium dichromate (orange), potassium chromate (yellow) and so on.
The responsibility of disposing RCRA hazardous waste lies with the manufacturer. However, some chemicals are so old that companies have merged or were bought over the years. For instance Welch Chemical Company became Seargent Welch, and eventually their packaging transitioned from glass to mainly plastic. In order for Billerica to dispose of their unwanted chemicals they will have to bring in a hazardous waste company. I hope our efforts will help chemistry teachers there to reduce or halt their spending on chemicals for a number of years, and increase safety within the classrooms.
This summer I am working with the Integrated Chemistry Management (ICM) Schools Program, which is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency. The program entails visiting various middle and high schools across Massachusetts and Rhode Island to organize their chemical storage spaces and laboratories in such a manner that those chemicals do not pose a hazard to students, teachers and the surrounding communities. The program further educates staff about waste management, safety practices and the use of a real time inventory.
My first week went something like this:
Monday: Visited Pioneer Charter School of Science in Everett. The team was greeted by a zealous STEM coordinator who escorted us to the chemistry lab and checked in periodically throughout the day. The school is rather small with limited funding, which was reflected by the number of chemicals in their storage facilities. The coordinator was very eager to continue the next step of the program, which is to have the teachers trained in chemical safety in August.
Tuesday & Wednesday: We visited Dracut High School. The number of chemicals in their lab was ridiculous – ten 500 mL of sodium acetate solution, 17 500 mL sodium phosphate solution, 62 hydroxide solutions, 34 carbonates, 88 chlorides and 27 hydrochloric acid solutions of varying concentrations. I won’t go on. This occurred mainly because many of the chemicals were purchased as kits and so many were unopened and covered with dust. It must have been difficult to know what chemicals are available when they are stacked and as a result more of the same chemicals were ordered before using the ones present.
Thursday: We visited Swampscott High School. The building was very new but the chemicals stored in it were very old – some older than me. Here we encountered more hazardous chemicals such as a few mercury compounds, several yellowed labels making it difficult to identify the chemicals and a few fluoride chemicals to name a few. What made this school interesting is that the chemicals were mainly arranged in alphabetical order, which meant that a number of incompatible chemicals were stored together.
Several chemicals such as bisulfate, phthalate and thiosulfate salts and numerous organic acids seemed more suitable for chemistry research labs than in a high school teaching setting. Some chemicals I encountered had amusing names such as Onion’s Fusible Alloy and super duper polymer gel. On the other hand I was horrified when I ran into Thorium Nitrate, which is radioactive and mercury thermometers. I hope that the ICM program will help teachers make informed decisions about the types and quantities of chemicals that they order and store in the future.
To learn more about this program and their progress over the years you can visit: