Legally Speaking: Kids, Don't Try This at Home

John G. Browning Sep. 6, 2011, 3:43am

"Got my first chemistry set when I was 7, blew off my eyebrows, we never saw the cat again. Been into it ever since."
-Stanley Goodspeed (Nicholas Cage), "The Rock"

The "chemical super-freak" and FBI agent portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the action movie "The Rock" would have been sorely disappointed had he come of age in the last decade. The options for budding young scientists are sadly limited, and lawyers and liability concerns are to blame.

Search for a chemistry kit at your local toy store or mass retailer, and you might find something like Elenco Electronics' Chemistry 60 chemistry set, which bills itself as providing "60 fun activities with no chemicals."

Yes, that's right—a chemistry set that features goggles, safety glasses, vials, test tubes, and other lab implements, but no actual chemicals. Kids are expected to provide those on their own, straight from the kitchen cupboard.

But fear not; lawyers found an element of danger in the kit nonetheless. The manufacturer's warning on the box cautions parents about the small magnets that come with the kit, scarily proclaiming "swallowed magnets can stick together across intestines causing serious infections and death."

It's enough to make me nostalgic for the days of my youth, when chemistry sets for kids were widely available. Generations of children whetted their appetites for discovery and science with kits from Gilbert, Skil Craft, Handy Andy, and of course Porter Chemcraft.

The Porter Chemcraft "lab in a box" contained enough bottles, beakers, and test tubes to conduct more than 800 experiments. At the zenith of its popularity during the 1950s and '60s, the company was the biggest user of test tubes in the United States.

Chemcraft sold over a million of its chemistry sets before going out of business in the 1980s, a victim of an overlawyered society rife with heightened fears of liability.

Don Herbert, the host of the "Mr. Wizard" TV show of the '50s and '60s and who starred in the science filmstrips that my classmates and I were still watching in the '70s, marketed a popular chemistry set for kids as well. When a company approached him a few years ago about offering an updated version of the kit, they found out it would be a daunting task since "more than half the chemicals were illegal to sell to children because they're considered dangerous."

By the time the "Mr. Wizard Science Set" entered the market, it came with balloons, Super Balls, clay and just five chemicals (one of which was laundry starch). As the head of Mr. Wizard Studios would later glumly admit, "It wasn't really something you could use to teach kids about chemistry."

Yes, unfortunately, lawyers and the fear of lawsuits are largely to blame for the absence of chemistry sets on the shelves. One of the few companies that still makes actual chemistry sets, Thames and Kosmos, puts out a top-of-the-line model retailing for $200 with test tubes, beakers, and over two dozen chemical compounds. Yet even this kit makes it clear that you'll need a veritable shopping list of other chemicals in order to carry out many of the experiments.

Ted McGuire, the company's president, says "A lot of retailers are scared to carry a real chemistry set now because of liability concerns. The stuff under your kitchen sink is far more dangerous than the things in our kits, but put the word 'chemistry' on something and people become terrified."

Fear of lawsuits isn't the only reason why chemistry sets are largely a thing of the past. It's a different world in which we live, a legal and regulatory landscape forever changed by a homegrown terrorist who blew up a federal building in Oklahoma, jihadists who converted jetliners into flying bombs on 9/11, and the menace of drugs like crystal meth spreading even into the once-bucolic surroundings of rural America.

In the years since 9/11, government agencies ranging from the Defense Department and the FBI to the Consumer Product Safety Commission have been tracking even small purchases of potentially deadly chemicals.

Acting on fears that terrorists could shoot down airliners with model rockets, a provision in the 2002 Homeland Security Act mandates background checks and licensing requirements for model rocket hobbyists.

More than 30 states have passed laws restricting sales of certain chemicals and lab equipment to help combat the proliferation of meth labs.

In Texas, for example, it is illegal to purchase basic labware like an Erlenmeyer flask or a three-necked beaker without registering with the Department of Public Safety and swearing that they won't be used for drug production. Look at the list of chemicals that many police departments have on their "forbidden list" for use in meth production, and you'll find many that are no further away than your home's medicine cabinet, like iodine, hydrogen peroxide or isopropyl alcohol.

In an irony lost on many, the average Mr. Coffee machine that is a fixture of many Texas legislators' offices has three violations of the law built into it: a Pyrex beaker, a heating element and a filter funnel.

Years ago, before our society became paralyzed with fear over lawsuits, the threat of terrorists behind every door, and the proliferation of meth labs, chemistry sets were not just an avenue for childhood discovery but the catalyst for brilliant careers in science and medicine.

Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, fondly recalls the days of experimenting with a chemistry set and turning a family shed into a well-stocked lab — long before he became the father of the semiconductor industry.

David Packard, of Hewlett-Packard fame, tinkered with new recipes for gunpowder when he was a child, while Internet pioneer Vint Cerf was blowing up thermite volcanoes and launching backyard rockets at age 10.

Nobel laureate and Cornell University scholar Ronald Hoffman voices a familiar lament.

"There's no question that stinks and bangs and crystals and colors are what drew kids—particularly boys—to science," he says. "Now the potential for stinks and bangs has been legislated out."

We are paying a price for our fears. Driven by liability concerns, many schools don't have chemistry labs anymore, and many other schools limit their chemistry-education to liability-proof teacher demonstrations. The Journal of Chemical Education calls restrictions on students getting hands-on experience "a problem that has been building for 10 or 15 years, driven by liability and safety concerns."

According to the National Science Board, 30 years ago the U.S. ranked third in the world in the number of science and engineering degrees awarded in the 18 to 24 age group; now the U.S. is 17th.

Bill Nye, the "Science Guy" who hosted a popular series for children on PBS for years, says "People who want to make meth will find ways to do it that don't require an Erlenmeyer flask. But raising a generation of people who are technically incompetent is a recipe for disaster."

My brothers and I grew up with a chemistry set, not to mention a telescope, microscope, and all manner of things with the potential to hurt us, but which also kindled a sense of wonder about science.

There's a real difference between reading Internet descriptions of chemical reactions and making your own erupting volcano. Unfortunately, many children growing up now will never experience that difference, thanks to the lawyers and fear-mongers.

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