Students faint in Corcoran chemistry lab

In the last five years, there have been no incidents of students fainting in Northwestern University’s organic chemistry laboratories, the lab director said. In the last seven years, two students at Duke University have passed out in the three- to four-hour labs, the lab manager said.

At GW, six students have passed out in the last two years in a science lab in Corcoran Hall alone, according to University records obtained by The Hatchet. Some University officials said the faintings were due to students not eating before class, but a national science safety expert said it could be because of poor ventilation.

Senior Lauren Stash was one of the six.

Jan. 27, 2007 was Stash’s first day of chemistry lab and just after the instructor had given a safety lecture, she passed out, fell sideways onto lab equipment and was rushed to the GW Hospital to treat the gash in the back of her head.

According to school records, on Sept. 13, 2005, two students passed out in Corcoran. On Feb. 2, 2005, another two students passed out in the same building. On Feb. 26, 2007, one month after Stash passed out, another incident occurred and a student injured her head and hip.

“Students passing out during chemistry labs is not the norm,” said Ken Roy, the chairperson of a science and safety board for the National Science Teachers Association.

University Police Department and the Emergency Medical Response Group are not called every time a student faints in the building, said Harland Westgate, public relations supervisor for EMeRG.

Michael King, chair of the Chemistry Department, said it is incumbent on students to come prepared for lab and that not eating could have negative effects.

“The students stated that they did not have anything to eat before class,” King, chair of the Chemistry department, wrote in an e-mail. “As such they place themselves in jeopardy.”

On the first day of classes, the graduate teaching assistants who conduct labs explain to students that they should eat before class and walk around if they feel lightheaded. Stash said she did not eat before her 10 a.m. chemistry lab, but she said she does not think that was the only reason she fainted.

“I hadn’t been in Corcoran for a while, and I wasn’t used to all the chemicals in the air. That building doesn’t have any fresh air coming in,” she said.

Another possible reason for the fainting could be poor ventilation, Roy said.

While Roy did not know the specifics of the cases, he said if there are any problems with fume hoods, which ventilate laboratory classrooms, then it is more likely that students will pass out.

The hoods were inspected last summer and inspections are scheduled again for this summer, said Fitzroy Smith, director of risk management and insurance.

King said exposure to chemicals had nothing to do with the incidents.

“No student has fainted or passed out because of any exposure to any chemical that I am aware of,” he said. “(Stash’s fainting) occurred during a discussion of administrative procedures. There were no chemicals in the lab for the students and none on the benches. The students were not engaged in any experiment.”

Stash, who now eats before her chemistry lab, said what upset her most was not that she passed out, but that she had fallen onto multiple ring stands stored on the floor of her classroom.

“If the University is going to change anything, I think they should store (the ring stands) somewhere else,” she said. “It’s not safe to have them just lying out like that.”

King said the ring stands are aligned against the side of the classroom to be “out of the way” and that Stash hurt herself because she “happened to be too close to the ring stands.”

While some students complain of having to stand for the labs, which are typically between two and three hours long, University officials said installing stools in the rooms would not be safe.

“We cannot place stools in the lab because they would impede egress (in the event of emergency),” King said. “The lab was never constructed to accommodate people sitting. The nature of the science requires that the experimenter stand in order to manipulate the equipment and make observations.”

University officials said they are reviewing lab safety. After completing a six-week safety inspection of science facilities, the Office of Risk Management created a first responder task group for the science department, according to the University’s 2006 annual report.

The group will respond to a range of potential incidents, from students feeling ill, fire hazards, students mixing chemicals incorrectly and other possible safety issues, said Tracy Schario, director of Media Relations.

Records from other laboratory buildings were not obtained.

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