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MUSCATINE — One by one, students filed into the City of Muscatine's Firehouse Number Two to learn about hazardous materials.

The students assembled in the garage were fifth through eighth graders from Colorado Elementary, West Middle School, McKinley Elementary, Central Middle School, Jefferson Elementary and Grant Elementary. The field trip was aimed at teaching them about hazardous material and how it is handled in Muscatine. One of the instructional coaches, Linda Steele, said even she learned something. 

"I learned that we're not supposed to throw away the fluorescent lightbulbs in the trash," Steele said. "We actually need to take them back to the store you got them from, or we need to take them to the transfer station so they can all be disassembled. There are traces of mercury in them and so if we break it, we might end up inhaling it."

The students that Steele chaperoned are part of the Future Problem Solvers, a scenario-based problem solving competition for students from grade 4 and higher. Though the scenario will not be revealed until the competition, each team is given a few topics to familiarize themselves with. 

"There are three topics that students are given throughout the year," Steele said. "Eventually, they will begin a future scenario that will require them to know a bit about toxic materials."

Students will have to come up with problems the scenario will cause and solutions for those problems. But in order to do well, they have to know the topic at hand. And in this case, that means brushing up on hazardous materials. Fortunately, Firehouse Number Two is home to Hazardous Material truck and its crew.

The Haz Mat truck parked at Firehouse Number Two provides identification, containment and disposal services for the five surrounding counties: Muscatine, Louisa, Henry, Washington and Keokuk. 

"Hazardous material is anything that will harm humans, animals and the environment," Lt. Pat Gingerich with the Muscatine Fire Department said. "Whether it's radiological, chemical, physical — I mean that's what hazardous material is."

Gingerich explained that depending on the incident, the approach that the hazmat team will take can change drastically. 

"A lot of times, it's like the incident that happened in Louisa County a few weeks back," Gingerich said. "It was a semi that overturned. Diesel fuel was leaking so our mitigation was to put some Oil Dry down. They already had the fuel (in the semi's tank) transferred. But we could have done that, too."

At this point Gingerich said, they are pretty proficient at handling stuff like spilled fuel. But with a quick look in the his copy of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health pocket guide to chemical hazards, shows the breadth of chemicals that Gingerich's team might be required to neutralize.

The inside reads like a chemistry textbook. From acetic acid anhydride to zinc peroxide, the guide offers precise molecular weight, solubility, and even a physical description. 

"We don't work fast," Gingerich said. "We want to research and figure out exactly what we are dealing with so we do it right. We'll determine things like if it's a flammable issue or a toxic issue. That will tell us which PPE (personal protective equipment) we should wear."

At Gingerich's feet were several feet of electric blue material. He picked up and explained that when dealing with toxic chemicals, his team needs the protective suit to keep them safe.

"If there is a possible rescue, then we are going to take the necessary precautions," Gingerich said. "We'll put on the PPE required and go out. But if it's not rescue, we are going to take our time, and we are going to research the chemical we have. We need to know its physical properties. What it looks like? What it can do to us? What are the signs and symptoms of poisoning look like? Some of it is pretty textbook. But some of it, you got to be McGyver to figure it out."