In September 2016, an internship with 2,4-dinitrophenylhydrazine returned to high school – with unexpectedly dramatic consequences. Dried-out containers of the reagent were soon unearthed in the school’s chemical stores. Safe when wet, once this chemical has dried it can explode. By Christmas of that year, the bombing squad was called in to blow up containers at nearly 600 British schools. This mammoth project was coordinated by Cleapss, the UK science education advisory service. “It was a very exciting time, but it was also quite a stressful time,” said Matt Endean, Cleapss associate director.
Two years later, school laboratory safety was back in the headlines. It turned out that some “heat-resistant gauzes sold to schools” [for use with Bunsen burners] had asbestos in it, ‘says Endean. In the absence of information on how far back this issue was, “we had to oversee the packing and safe disposal of every garbage in every school in the country.”
Endean is a former teacher who graduated from the University of Exeter, UK with a combined degree in chemistry and secondary education in 2001. He then took a job as a science teacher at a girls’ school in London. After a few years, he was promoted to assistant manager and found he loved leadership. In 2005 he left the classroom – as a scientific advisor to a community. “It was a new challenge and a chance to influence and work on a higher level,” he says. In this role, he supported science teachers and department heads at 17 secondary schools.
Endean joined Cleapss as an associate director in 2011 and was promoted to his current position four years later. Cleapss is a member organization that provides advice to 98% of schools and colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and around 700 foreign schools. Its overall goal is “to provide support and guidance to teachers and technicians in schools on how to do safe and effective practical work,” explains Endean.
Emergency support is an integral part of what Cleapss does. Fortunately, nationwide issues such as explosive reagents and contaminated gauze are rare, with hotline calls and emails usually much easier to handle. ‘We had one recently from a kid who decided to lick a copper sulfate crystal!’ says Endean. The helpline also supports schools with other challenges such as misconduct in experiments and problems with the procurement of chemicals.
The Cleapss website has additional resources, including model chemical risk assessments and step-by-step guides for experiments for teachers. All of these experiments were tested by Endean and his colleagues in their laboratory at Brunel University London. In normal times, the team conducts around 200 practice-oriented safety courses for science school technicians and teachers each year.
Endean also sits on chemical industry committees and boards that write and update chemical safety regulations and guidelines. Chemical rules tend to “not consider education or just pay lip service,” he explains. With his presence, security in schools has a place at the table. A current committee, in which Endean is active, intends to redesign the Bunsen burner to enable the planned addition of hydrogen to the natural gas supply. A complete switch to hydrogen gas is also planned, he adds.
Let the microscale grow
One silver lining of the school internship disruption caused by the pandemic, Endean explains, is that schools have been thinking about their standard experiments. These had remained largely unchanged for decades. Microscale experiments in particular have gained popularity during the pandemic. Downsizing experiments from a beaker of reagents to a few drops on a laminated plastic wrap has obvious advantages in social distancing requirements. But Cleapss has been developing and marketing these for several years – as a safer, but also more environmentally friendly and (typically) faster alternative to conventional experiments.
Outside of work, Endean applies his knowledge of chemical safety to motorsport safety. “I sit on a number of Motorsport UK committees,” he says. “When updating or writing regulations, whether it’s motorsport or gas regulations, the language and skills required are almost identical,” he explains. Endean grew up in a family of auto enthusiasts, and he and his wife are regular competitors of rally cars in their Nissan Micra, MG ZR, and VW Golf.
Rally driving “is a safe sport, but it also involves dangers, which makes it exciting,” he says. Rules and regulations control this risk. The same applies in the science school laboratory, he adds. “Every internship comes with a risk – it’s always riskier than reading a textbook. Our job at Cleapss is to minimize these risks as much as possible by developing safe and effective practices. ‘