Waterloo Road Bad Science

[BPSDB]Waterloo Road, the eponymous school in BBC 1′s drama/soap opera, with its disaster-prone staff and unruly students, seems to have managed until now without a science department. This changed with the Wednesday 11 November episode, which featured helpings of bad science and bad education.

Plot summary. A student nicks some laboratory alcohol and uses it to spike bottles of soft drinks, then sells the resultant cocktail to his fellow students. One drinks rather a lot of it and is hospitalised. This is not the bad science as it is pretty much what you’d expect. The bad science is the Executive Head Teacher saying “Selling alcohol would be bad enough but this is ethanol”. Ethanol, FKA ethyl alcohol, is the alcohol found in alcoholic drinks. The reason why spiking drinks with laboratory alcohol is a really bad idea is that it is industrial methylated spirits (IMS) which is 5% methanol – which is extremely toxic. Furthermore, IMS bottles are labelled as harmful, and while the character doing the spiking has previously been portrayed as somewhat dim one would assume that even he would pause at considering a “harmful” liquid to be drinkable.

I am aware that schools are allowed to hold small quantities of pure ethanol for experiments which require it, drinking something spiked with it would have only the usual effects associated with overdoing the sauce ie inebriation followed by a hangover. However, the school would have to be licensed by Customs and Excise to hold the stuff and its use would have to be carefully monitored precisely because it is drinkable.

This leads neatly into the bad education. At Waterloo Road, IMS is kept in an unlocked wooden cupboard in the laboratory allowing students to gain access. In reality, IMS being both harmful and inflammable would be kept in a locked metal cabinet in a separate store room – which would also be kept locked.

Unlike some of the teachers in my department, I actually like this programme. I just think it would not hurt to get some basic background facts right.

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7 Responses to “Waterloo Road Bad Science”

  1. brainduck Says:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/west_midlands/8358017.stm ?

  2. Bob Worley Says:

    Just how much did they take? I am very suspicious of this whole event. “After blood tests, they were allowed home and were back at school yesterday”, so says the paper. What were the results of the blood test? No stomach pumps, no vomiting, no nausea!

    The following is from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Short-term_effects_of_alcohol and remember children would be more affected than adults because of their lower body mass.

    Euphoria (BAC = 0.03 to 0.12%).

    Subject may experience an overall improvement in mood and possible euphoria.
    They may become more self-confident or daring; they may become more friendly or talkative, and/or social.
    Their attention span shortens. They may look flushed.
    Their judgment is not as good—they may express the first thought that comes to mind, rather than an appropriate comment for the given situation
    They have trouble with fine movements, such as writing or signing their name.

    (Actually this appears to be normal for Y10!)

    The school said yesterday: ‘Following the theft of pure ethanol from a science lesson six students admitted drinking some of the liquid.
    ‘There are no concerns about their health and all of them are in their GCSE exams at school today.’

    Ah, so they were doing tests and exams!

    Actually IMS is now called IDA, industrial denatured alcohol, now and you are quite right about the security.

  3. Neuroskeptic Says:

    “The reason why spiking drinks with laboratory alcohol is a really bad idea is that it is industrial methylated spirits (IMS) which is 5% methanol”

    Is it? I was under the impression that IMS was always dyed purple – precisely to discourage people from drinking it. Lab alcohol isn’t, so I’d always assumed it was ethanol…

    • jaycueaitch Says:

      The methylated spirits you buy in the shop for use as a fuel is indeed dyed purple. Industrial methylated spirits is not. Presumably the dye would interfere with chemical reactions but IANAC.

  4. Bob Worley Says:

    The purple liquid is now called completely denatured alcohol (CDA) and was formally called Mineralised Methylated Spirits). This from the The Denatured Alcohol Regulations 2005.

    Completely denatured alcohol must be made in accordance with the following formulation: with every 90 parts by volume of alcohol mix 9.5 parts by volume of wood naphtha or a substitute for wood naphtha and 0.5 parts by volume of crude pyridine, and to the resulting mixture add mineral naphtha (petroleum oil) in the proportion of 3.75 litres to every 1000 litres of the mixture and synthetic organic dyestuff (methyl violet) in the proportion of 1.5 grams to every 1000 litres of the mixture.

    This means CDA can be sold in shops. Schools buy IDA from educational suppliers and have to fill in Notice 473 to say they will secure IDA securely. We should now see in Waterloo Road a visit by Customs and Excise and possibly the HSE. The Local Authority Safety officer will be visiting as well to dicuss the poor storage conditions in the school! I will never happen.

  5. jaycueaitch Says:

    I would have thought a visit by HSE inspectors would be mandatory after such an incident. I also think that the school would be prosecuted.

  6. Keven Katnik Says:

    Thanks to this post I dont look like an idiot. I had a disagreement with someone and this proves I was right. Thanks!

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