Friday 23 March 2018

School science labs told to stop using 'blacklisted' chemicals

John Walshe Education Editor

CHEMICALS that have been used for decades in school science experiments will be removed from the classroom from next week in a bid to improve safety.

The country's 730 secondary schools will be ordered to stop using around 15 chemicals and chemical compounds, the Irish Independent has learned.

The chemicals to be disposed of have long featured in practical experiments and are still part of the current curriculum.

But they have now been classified as "substances of very high concern" by the European Chemicals Agency, prompting the Department of Education's decision to remove them from schools.

However, despite the sudden ban on their use, students could still face questions about them in the Junior and Leaving Cert exams, which start in just three months' time.

A department circular, seen by this newspaper, says: "These topics will remain as part of the syllabus in terms of the theoretical knowledge of the experimental procedure and its outcomes, but students will not be required to have physically undertaken the procedure.

"These topics will, as heretofore, remain examinable in the Leaving Certificate chemistry examinations until notice to the contrary is given."

Teaching sources said last night there had been few if any major incidents in schools involving the listed chemicals.

"We store them very carefully. They are well watered down in experiments, the labs are well ventilated and the students wear white coats and goggles," said one teacher.

The chemicals include sodium chromate and dichromate as well as cobalt chloride paper. Schools will also be told to dispose of supplies of boric acid.

They will be directed to isolate the chemicals, store them safely and retain them until the school is contacted by a chemicals-disposal company.

The department is currently arranging a tender for the disposal of the chemicals, but it will take some time to complete the procurement process. Schools will be notified as soon as the implementation arrangements are finalised.

The decision to ban them was taken after advice from the Health and Safety Authority.

The chemicals feature in junior cert science and leaving cert chemistry but schools will also be told that if the listed substances are used in art, craft and design -- for instance, in ceramics -- their use should also be discontinued.

An updated risk assessment and revision of the health and safety guidelines for science labs is being prepared for schools.

Many of the experiments have already been conducted by sixth-year students as schools move into revision mode in preparation for the Leaving.

But the decision also has implications for fifth-year students as the course is a two-year programme and the removal of the experiments will have knock-on implications next year.

These are being reviewed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and the State Examinations Board and schools will be advised in due course, adds the department circular.

A new syllabus is being finalised for chemistry, which will not involve the listed chemicals or compounds.

Irish Independent

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