Some chemistry teachers might be surprised to see what’s in their science storage rooms.
Lynn Tarnowski, chemical hygiene officer for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, was pointing to a bottle of a chemical used to make bubbles in one of the Schalmont High School storage rooms. The manufacturer went out of business in the mid-1950s.
“I don’t think people realize how many chemicals they have,” she said.
Some of these chemicals are toxic and harmful to the environment so DEC officials are looking to replace them with safer ones. Schalmont is one of four high schools selected statewide for the DEC’s new “green chemistry” project. For the last two years, the DEC has been trying to reduce toxic chemicals in the state’s schools. The project has been made possible from a $90,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
On Tuesday, DEC officials were training Schalmont science teachers on alternative chemicals.
Phosphoric and sulfuric acid are other chemicals that are popular in schools, but extremely toxic, according to Tarnowski. People are allergic to sulfuric acid and other chemicals can burn through clothes.
Tarnowski said New York state science standards have changed and many of these chemicals are no longer needed. Some can be replaced in experiments with less toxic alternatives, such as ordinary soap, vinegar and baking soda.
For example, instead of using a hazardous chemical, science teachers can use the carbon dioxide from dry ice to extract a limonene — a type of oil — from an orange, according to DEC environmental program specialist Deborah Knight.
Knight said state officials loved the enthusiasm of Schalmont’s staff during a workshop, so they were selected for
the pilot project. The project is good for schools because they can save space and money by not having to keep so many chemicals, according to Knight.
“Right now, schools need to save every penny they can,” she said.
The three other schools are located in the Hudson Valley, Long Island and New York City, Knight said. DEC officials hope to expand the program to other school districts. A DEC survey showed that more than 90 percent of science teachers were interested in green chemistry.
Aida Potter, chief of toxics reduction and green chemistry for DEC, said some chemicals can be harmful to the environment if they are just flushed down the drain. Schalmont is already very careful with its disposal practices because the school system is on a septic system.
In addition, Potter said she hopes this project will inspire young people to pursue chemistry as a career.
Teachers Adam Labuda, Lynn Gemmitti and Rose Hochmuth will participate in a full-day workshop on Jan. 20 at Siena College to learn about green chemistry, perform experiments and receive lesson plans. The college has replaced its conventional chemistry experiment with green chemistry to increase student safety and decrease environmental hazards.
Labuda said Schalmont is lucky to be selected for this training. “It’s a great way to promote environmentalism by modeling it.”