Fear and loathing in chemistry sets

images-1Remember chemistry sets? Millennials won’t. They pretty much vanished about 25 years ago. These were kits sold for kids, with arrays of different chemicals in little jars, and maybe some equipment like tongs, glassware, and Bunsen burners.

People loved them. Were they out of their minds? The danger! The danger!

Well, they sure were dangerous. I don’t recall having had a store-bought chemistry set, but I did have a science bent, and one time when my parents were out, I conducted a little clandestine chemistry experiment on the kitchen counter. images-2Yes, it blew up. The countertop was damaged, but luckily I was unscathed . . . until Mom got home.

The idea of letting a kid today play with chemicals, using fragile glassware and a Bunsen burner no less, would be seen as flat-out madness. Such a parent would probably be locked up.

Actually, chemistry sets are still sold, but they’re a pale shadow, with only a few insipid substances that do nothing more than change color; and certainly no Bunsen burners. unknownI even read that the Consumer Product Safety Commission was considering banning one set because it included . . . wait for it . . . a paper clip. Yes, the dreaded paper clip. Could be swallowed.

Remember the “Bubble Boy” . . . ?

But no doubt old-time chemistry sets did cause some injuries. However, when I googled the phrase “children killed by chemistry sets” (yes, intensive research goes into these blog posts), I couldn’t find a single case. But one commentary that came up said chemistry sets in fact taught kids safety. You learn by doing. (I certainly learned from that kitchen mishap.) Whereas today’s kids are so overprotected from every conceivable danger that they don’t properly develop the concept of danger. unknown-1I wonder if this is a cause for a modern behavior that really is insanely hazardous (killing thousands annually): texting while driving.

Chemistry sets also taught kids about, well, chemistry, and science more generally. My googling, while it turned up no death stories, did turn up kids who developed a love of science from those chemistry sets and went on to scientific careers. Maybe the demise of chemistry kits is one small reason why we’re producing fewer scientists.

Yet another casualty of our twisted mentality about fears and dangers. Both fear and its lack can be irrational, and we often get it wrong both ways. How many people have ever sent a text expressing fear about GM foods (no danger at all) – while driving? And too often we vent fears about good things (like GM, and child science kits) but not truly bad things (like guns in the home which, unlike chemistry sets, kill kids in droves).

unknown-2Another good thing that has suffered from this syndrome is the childhood fun of Halloween. Do you know how many kids were ever actually poisoned by Halloween candy?

Precisely one. His father did it to collect insurance.

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3 Responses to “Fear and loathing in chemistry sets”

  1. Doug Smith Says:

    http://www.snopes.com/horrors/poison/halloween.asp
    Following up on this produced the above link which relates the backstory of this boy’s death and that of his father (by lethal injection) as well as several other related stories where people tried to blame injury to a child on Halloween.
    PS: I had a Chemistry set in the 50’s but my favorite chemical exposure was when my father would take me out to watch a low flying plane spraying DDT.

  2. Lee Says:

    I don’t know whether it is true, but I have heard that one is more likely to be killed by one’s own gun than by a terrorist.

  3. rationaloptimist Says:

    Oh, come on, it’s HUNDREDS of times more likely.

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