Children's chemistry sets used to contain cyanideS

Do you ever long for the good ol' days? When a rickety school desk was enough to protect you from a nuclear blast, and chemistry sets contained real (read: deadly) chemicals?

The first half of the 20th century was the golden age of children's chemistry sets. "By the 1920s and 30s," writes BBC's Alex Hudsen in this expose on the disappearance of the basic chem set, "children had access to substances which would raise eyebrows in today's more safety-conscious times."

What kind of chemicals are we talking here? Oh, you know, the usual. Radioactive substances like uranium dust (evidently this was a hit in "nuclear" kits marketed in the 1950s); chemicals for making gun powder, like potassium nitrate; and, of course, sodium cyanide — one of the most rapidly acting toxins known to man.

Are these chemicals dangerous? Absolutely. But that, say scientists who grew up experimenting with these older kits, is no excuse to drag down science education. Today's kits, often hobbled by health and safety regulations, kind of suck. "Some of the bigger sellers recently have included one capable of making edible creations tied to film franchises," writes Hudson, "and a perfume kit aimed at girls... These kits are not capable of the experiments of old."

So how do you reunite kids with more interesting (if potentially dangerous) chemical experiments? Promoting safe experimentation, says Judith Hackitt, Chair of the UK's Health and Safety Commission, is key:

For science to move away from practical experiments because they are seen as dangerous, she believes, is a mistake.

"Yes they are safe. Are there some hazards associated with them? Yes, but of a very minor nature. The whole idea of them is you learn from handling real materials," she says.

Read more about the glory days of kids' chemistry sets at BBC. Want to build your own kickass chemistry set? Check out this great guide to assembling your own, courtesy of the folks at MAKE.

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