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Dangers lurk in school science labs

The nation's middle and high school chemistry labs are essential for fostering a passion for science. But they may also be ticking time bombs waiting to explode. NBC's Tom Costello reports.

On the Kansas prairie, under lock and key, Eureka Junior/Senior High School science teacher Sam Wine guards a stockpile of hazardous chemicals.

"Students get a hold of this, mixed with the wrong stuff, you have the same explosive you had for Oklahoma City," says Wine.

Bomb ingredients in a school chemistry lab?

"Yeah, by all means," he says.

Across the country, middle and high school science labs are overflowing with potentially dangerous and unstable chemicals. If handled improperly, they can explode, catch on fire or burn through the skin. The chemicals include: Piric acid, which can explode instantly if mishandled; bromine and chlorine, once used as chemical warfare agents; and ethyl ether, also potentially explosive.

"We got bottles with labels from the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s," says Wine. "We didn't know what to do with them. You can't throw them away because of the environmental hazard. So they stacked up!"

Many schools started accumulating chemicals back in the 1950s when the government was pouring money into science programs, hoping U.S. students would compete more effectively with the Soviet space program.

Fifty years later, it's the schools that are left with a massive clean-up. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has allocated $250,000 to clean up the nation's schools. That's enough to cover just 20 to 30 schools.

Most schools can't afford to pay for it themselves. But Dave Waddell, who heads Seattle's clean-up effort, says schools can't afford not to.

"In many schools, the stock rooms are not kept locked," says Waddell, a member of the King County hazardous waste team. "It would be very easy for kids to get in there. They could mix together all kinds of cocktails."

Already there have been several close calls. In Washington, D.C., 830 students remain locked out of school after a mercury spill. Three students have been arrested. In California, authorities believe a student charged with stealing chemicals from a science lab intended to blow up the school.

"This shouldn't happen with properly stored chemicals," says Vern Schramm, a chemistry professor at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, N.Y.

We asked Schramm to review pictures and lists of chemicals found in some of the nation's schools.

"These are compounds left over from an age gone by," he says. "Chemistry has moved beyond these and they have left a residue of dangerous chemicals in the laboratory."

Back in Kansas, the state has now gotten involved, cleaning out Sam Wine's closet, emptying it of chemicals often older than the teachers who use them.