Toxic trash: Nebraska removes potentially dangerous chemicals from school science labs

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August 7, 2012 - 7:00pm

Editor's note: This report is part of NET's science and environmental reporting project, QUEST Nebraska.

The whine of the hydraulic lift on the back of a cargo truck is sweet music to Dr. Joan Christen. That's because she won't have to worry any more about the chemicals inside the dozen or so boxes leaving the ground - boxes carrying 320 pounds of toxic and potentially hazardous chemicals that were in a science lab at Beatrice High School in Beatrice, Neb., where Christen teaches. Each container has one of those diamond-shaped caution signs - some say "corrosive," some say "flammable." One said "poison."

Photo by Jerry Johnston, NET News

Potassium nitrate, a potentially hazardous oxidizer, is part of 320 pounds of chemicals awaiting disposal at Beatrice High School in Beatrice, Neb. You can find a list of hazardous chemicals commonly found at schools here.

Christen is in her element in her science classroom at Beatrice High. Every square inch of the walls is covered by science posters, and the room contains collections of sea shells, shelves of microscopes, carts of textbooks and drawers full of corks, springs, and string. Before the chemicals were loaded on the truck, they sat on the same tables where students will be sitting when the school year begins.

Some of the bottles were brown with stained labels. Some of the jars were full of white powder.

Christen pointed to one table.

"Most of the things on this table are indicators dyes ... some of these bottles are really, really old - probably from the 1940s and '50's," she said. "We just have way too much of it to keep on hand. These chemicals are potentially hazardous, but mostly just take up room."

At the next table, she identified some bigger problems.

"We've got toxics, or poisons over here; we've got a stack of oxidizers over here," Christen said. "Some toxins can damage tissue through inhalation or contact. Oxidizers, under certain conditions, can cause explosions."

David Vernerd leaned over the tables, watching Christen's demonstration. A crew chief with Clean Harbors, Inc., the company hired to dispose of Beatrice High's unwanted chemicals, he categorizes and arranges the bottles so he can pack and label them according to U.S. Department of Transportation standards.

Photo by Jerry Johnston, NET News

David Vernerd, crew chief with Clean Harbors, Inc., labels hazardous chemicals for shipment at Beatrice High School in Beatrice, Neb.

Vernerd's chemistry degree qualifies him for the work, but there's an additional motivation.

"I think about the kids," he said. "I have a son myself, so I want the kids to be safe."

That's what Christen wants, too.

"That's why this bottle has to go" she said. "Potassium chlorate. There are some things you can do with that, but we just don't do them anymore, because it's just too dangerous."

She said safety standards in the science classroom have changed.

"When I was in high school, we played with mercury on the table with our hands," she recalled, "but we don't do that anymore. You get more knowledge about the toxic effects, so some of the things you used to do you just don't do anymore."

Christen said there's no trade-off between safety and science learning - there are still plenty of safe chemistry experiments for her students, and students can watch videos of riskier experiments done under more controlled conditions by experts.

Photo by Jerry Johnston, NET News

Chemicals ready for disposal are organized by type in a science classroom in Beatrice High School in Beatrice, Neb.

Disposing unused, unwanted, and toxic chemicals from Beatrice High - and from every other High School in Nebraska - is the goal of the Nebraska School Chemical Cleanup Campaign. The campaign is part of Keep Nebraska Beautiful, and is publicly funded. Alan Grell, project director, said over the five years of the Nebraska School Chemical Cleanup Campaign, 292 schools have been cleared of potentially hazardous and toxic chemicals. He said not a single dime comes out of a school's budget for the cleanup.

"It's grant funds," he explained. "For three years, the Nebraska (Department of Environmental Quality) supported the program. This year, the Nebraska Environmental Trust is financing the operation, (which) will clean out 23 schools."

Grell is a retired colonel, Nebraska Army National Guard, and has served on a number of hazardous waste and emergency response organizations. He said removing 320 pounds of chemicals from Beatrice High will cost $2,700.

The price tag for all Nebraska's school chemical cleanups over the last five years comes to about a million dollars, Grell said. Some of the initial funds went into online training manuals for teachers. Now, the money is spent paying professionals to properly handle and dispose of the unwanted chemicals. After being labeled and loaded up, they will be trucked to an incinerator in Arkansas - much to the relief Nebraska teachers like Christen.



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