Chemicals In Schools

Regulatory, Legal and Financial Ramifications

Chemicals pervade school environments and are commonplace from elementary and high schools to colleges, universities and research facilities.

The Academic Chemical Environment

Although science laboratories are obvious locations of chemicals, they are also found dispersed throughout school buildings and general office and storage facilities. See Figure 1

As in the industrial/commercial world, the use, management and disposal of chemicals within schools is highly regulated by federal and state regulations and local codes and ordinances. Significant fines and penalties may result from noncompliance with these regulatory programs. Unlike the industrial/commercial community however, most schools remain far from compliant with these regulations.

In most cases, schools remain unaware of their regulatory requirements unless highlighted by an accident or identified in the course of a routine inspection. In most cases, the reactionary response to immediately remove the chemicals is rarely cost-effective and often results in a crippling of the science curriculum or ignores chemicals in other areas which should have been removed. 

Chemical incidents involving injury, fires or evacuations often incite angry responses from the families of those who are affected and invite intensive media scrutiny.

Proper and cost-effective chemical management requires attention to all phases of chemical procurement, on-site inventory management, safe operating facilities and practices, and robust management of resulting waste products. This expertise is not typically available with school districts, and when delegated to contractors, often results in a costly and reactionary removal of only those chemicals perceived to be “the problem”. Schools should instead take a comprehensive approach to the management of the chemicals to reduce procurement and disposal costs while also minimizing long-term liability.

Regulatory Considerations

Chemicals are regulated by a number of agencies on both the federal and state level. On the federal level, hazardous chemicals in the workplace are strictly regulated by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) under the Hazard Communication Standard “HAZCOM” (29CFR1910.1200). To address those hazards specific to laboratory environments, OSHA developed the Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories Standard (29CFR1910.1450), commonly known as “The Laboratory Standard”. These federal standards apply to the workplace and private schools, but do not typically extend to state or local governmental units which include public schools. As a result, many public schools believe they are completely exempt from these regulations. To the contrary, most states have either adopted the federal regulations or implemented substantially equivalent regulations within their jurisdictions, which include public schools. Individual school districts will need to carefully review applicability in their specific states.

From the standpoint of chemical waste disposal, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) 40CFR260-266 regulations strictly regulate the disposal of hazardous wastes. Many states have secured federal authority to enforce their own hazardous waste regulations. To receive this authority, the state’s regulatory framework must be no less than “substantially equivalent” and in some cases, more stringent than federal RCRA requirements. These regulations address “generator”, “transporter” and “treatment/disposal facility” standards and permitting. If a state has not received authority to enforce its own RCRA program, that authority reverts to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA).

The transportation of chemicals, both unused and as wastes, is regulated by the Department of Transportation. Hazardous Material (HM or HAZMAT) regulations are designed to protect the public, transporters and spill response personnel during the transportation of hazardous materials and include proper identification of shipped materials, shipping papers, personnel training, spill response, appropriate packaging and specifications related to the type of vehicle which may transport them. These regulations are typically enforced by local and state police departments.

Finally, local governmental units including counties, municipalities, building departments and zoning boards regulate the storage and management of chemicals within the school building. These regulations typically include limitations upon the type and quantity of chemicals allowed in a building, storage requirements for corrosives, flammables and reactive materials, ventilation requirements, etc. A summary of these requirements is displayed in Figure 2.

School Generator Requirements

From a school or district’s perspective, the most relevant portion of these regulations are those pertaining to “generators” of hazardous waste. Generator standards begin with determining generator status, which is based upon the rate of hazardous waste generation. (See Figure 3) 

Generator requirements (USEPA identification number, allowable storage quantities, storage and accumulation time, use of manifests, biennial reporting, training, contingency planning, etc.) can place a large regulatory burden on a school, depending upon which generator classification they fall into. Whenever possible, generators should strive for Conditionally-Exempt Small Quantity Generator (CESQG) status to minimize compliance requirements, but must assume the classification which their generation rate dictates.

Liability Implications

Hazardous waste regulations provide for “strict, joint and severable” liability, meaning that improper management may result in fines or imprisonment for the individual (teacher or administrator) as well as the institution (school or school district). The selection of appropriately permitted, insured and qualified transportation contractor and treatment/disposal site are paramount to minimizing long-term liability, and should therefore be carefully documented.
Individual states either adopt the federal RCRA regulations or adopt state regulations which are at least substantially equivalent, but may be more stringent than federal regulations. It is strongly recommended that schools review their specific state regulations and requirements.
  • Generator Classifications
  • Generator Standards
  • Transporter Standards
  • Storage Standards
  • Disposal Site Standards
RCRA defines two broad categories of hazardous waste: listed and characteristic wastes. The determination of “characteristic” versus “listed” waste is a complicated one and should be referred to a qualified environmental consultant or waste disposal contractor. As the liability for improper determination of waste remains with the generator, care is warranted.

Listed wastes typically found in schools typically consist of spent solvents in chemical laboratories and automotive and maintenance shops. 

Characteristic wastes are far more prevalent in schools. These materials exhibit one of four hazardous “characteristics” – ignitable, corrosive, reactive or toxic. Ignitable waste is essentially the same as flammable material. Corrosive wastes include materials at both ends of the pH spectrum; acids and bases. Reactives are materials which interact with water, heat, light or in combination with other chemicals. Toxic wastes include any of 43 inorganic and organic constituents (arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, silver, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, etc.)

Chemical Procurement

The extent to which most school districts manage their chemical stock is a budgetary line item for purchasing them. Experience shows that without procurement controls, most districts purchase far more chemicals than they need. With a “use it or lose it” approach, funds not expended during the current fiscal year typically translate into a reduced budget line in subsequent years. Since no one wants that to occur, the full budget is dutifully spent on additional chemicals, whether needed or not. 

Other reasons for over-purchasing include:

  • Staff attrition – new staff either doesn’t know the status or location of all chemicals, or prefers new chemicals to those left from prior staffs
  • Curricula changes – many new science curricula are adopted complete with their own chemical inventory and restocking program
  • Unit cost bias – purchasing in larger quantities lowers the unit cost of chemicals purchased

From the engineering and operations management perspective, chemical wastes are generated due to ongoing chemical usage as well as vendor changeover (changing from one boiler treatment supplier to another), project work (demolition, construction, renovations), trial evaluations of new materials and damaged, forgotten or surplus treatment chemicals, janitorial supplies, paints, solvents, fuels and pesticides/herbicides.

Some chemicals present potential hazard or disposal cost so high as to be considered unreasonable to allow within the school environment, leading some districts to adopt a “prohibited” or “forbidden” list of chemicals. These chemicals may not be purchased or donated to the school. 

Ongoing Chemical Management

The presence of chemicals in schools, regardless of whether they are used in classrooms or to maintain the premises, trigger regulatory requirements discussed earlier in this paper. Given the potential for fines, imprisonment and negative publicity, school districts are well advised to develop a plan to attain compliance. Of primary importance is developing an accurate and current chemical inventory. Unfortunately, few school districts have any idea of their true chemical inventories. The fact that chemicals are consumed and moved on a daily basis and that new chemicals are periodically added, means that inventories rapidly become dated and require constant effort to remain current.

An accurate and current chemical inventory is essential for assuring that excessive chemicals are not purchased in the first place. From a regulatory standpoint, the inventory allows a school to assure it has a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), as required, for each chemical on the premises. The inventory also facilitates the prompt identification of any high hazard chemical, forbidden materials, or chemicals beyond their expiration dates. Finally, the inventory allows for the tracking of materials as they become wastes to assure that legally established storage periods set by generator status are not exceeded.

Chemical Hygiene Plan

The principal component of the OSHA Laboratory Standard is the implementation of a Chemical Hygiene Plan. The Chemical Hygiene Plan establishes the management structure and procedures for all chemicals within the facility not limited to its science laboratories. The Plan requires establishment of a chemical management organization, designation of a chemical hygiene officer, implementation of an inventory management system, chemical information system and health monitoring system, among many other requirements.

Chemical Compatibility

Among the greatest hazards presented by chemicals within schools is the potential for unforeseen and unintended reactions between incompatible chemicals. In those cases where a formal storage system is adopted, all too often chemicals are arranged in alphabetical order. Following this method virtually guarantees that incompatible chemicals will be in close proximity to one another. Conversely, the lack of any formal storage system allows the arbitrary combination of incompatibles. Schools must take care to select a management/storage system that accounts for the chemical compatibilities, and those hazards which may develop as chemicals age and respond to environmental conditions. 

Some schools allow for on-site treatment of chemical wastes, disposing of them through sink drains to the sanitary sewer system. This practice should be discouraged except by those with excellent knowledge of chemical compatibility and local discharge requirements. Regardless of the absence of color or the fact that the material has been neutralized, improperly treated solutions poured down the drain can cause fires, explosions, effluent violations or damage to the school’s plumbing system. These materials are best collected, labeled, properly stored and disposed through a reputable chemical waste disposal contractor.

Chemical Disposal

Although the generation of chemical wastes is a normal result of school operations, surprisingly few schools make any allowance for their disposal. Virtually all school districts operate without any budget or oversight for chemical disposal. The typical approach is to conduct large-scale removals on an as-needed basis in response to a chemical accident or regulatory citation. These removals are expensive as there is seldom adequate time or expertise to compile an inventory or negotiate competitive pricing, particularly when an immediate removal is mandated by a regulatory agency.

It is often said that one cannot manage what one does not measure. By the time chemical disposal is addressed, it typically has grown so large and expensive that the cost is borne by the district’s central office. Funds for such a removal must be reallocated from other intended purposes, which subsequently suffer. School districts are well advised to force the cost for chemical disposal back to the operating unit as a line item expense, where it can be managed. Those schools which minimize their waste generation are rewarded with lower cost, while those which do not, pay commensurately more for their inefficiency.

Once the school’s excess chemicals are purged and procurement is limited to need, the resulting annual stream of waste chemicals requiring disposal is smaller and less costly to absorb. The disposal cost becomes a manageable annual expense of the operating unit.

Due to the long-term implications of improper chemical disposal, great care should be taken in selecting disposal contractors with appropriate training, experience, insurance, permitting and reputation.


Most schools and school districts are unaware of the potential costs and liabilities incurred as a result of the chemicals that have accumulated over time. The costs include the initial purchase cost and the cost of disposal. In most cases, schools do not realize the disposal cost until they have been confronted with a massive chemical removal. 

Removal costs can be minimized by adhering to three key components: 1) maintaining a current chemical inventory with the quantities and locations of all materials; 2) annual scheduled removal of excess, obsolete and damaged chemicals; and 3) ordering only those chemicals in quantities expected to be consumed within one year.

In addition to the cost liability for chemical disposal, schools are confronted with legal liability if chemicals are improperly stored or disposed. Too often, schools have non-existent or improper chemical storage procedures which can result in chemical reactions, fires, explosions, and the potential for significant injuries and media scrutiny. The most significant liability is for violations of hazardous waste management and Hazard Communication regulations, which carry the possibility of substantial fines and imprisonment.

Given these potential threats and unrealized costs, schools are advised to carefully review their current chemical management practices and assure they are brought into compliance with applicable regulations. Finally, overall cost can be minimized by reducing overall chemical inventories to the quantity used within one year. Since many of these requirements are highly technical, professional assistance should be engaged when the required expertise is not available in-house.