Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

Thousands were shocked in recent days to read of a 16 year old girl, Keira Wilmot, who was reportedly arrested for a failed science experiment which caused a small explosion and ended with the young girl being Kiera WilmotKiera Wilmotarrested and charged with “possessing or discharging weapons or firearms at a school sponsored event or on school property.” A conviction could have meant a five-year prison term, triggering Facebook, Twitter, and dozens of blogs to virtually explode with comments and requests to write to school and law enforcement officials to complain. An online crowdfund even netted an $8,000 legal defense fund, and a petition on that attracted over 195,000 signators.

But could there be more to this story than meets the eye?

Brief explanations in initial reports described Ms. Wilmot’s mishap as part of a “science experiment gone wrong,” but details were lacking. Many simply hinted at incorrect mixtures of chemicals, or bad timing. Later articles mentioned an 8 oz. plastic bottle, and aluminum foil, reminding me of a article that was recently posted in my Facebook feed by a concerned friend. In it, the authors describe a dangerous trend of “Bottle Bombs,” also commonly known as “Drano Bombs.” The description of these bombs and their ingredients (Drano, aluminum foil, plastic soda bottle, etc.) is almost identical to that in the Wilmot case. These makeshift bombs are sometimes set up such that the active ingredients are suspended above the liquid using a piece of aluminum foil. When shaken or otherwise disturbed, the two mix, generating a chemical reaction that results in rapid increase in pressure inside the bottle, and ultimately a large explosion. They are powerful enough to blow off fingers and maim, and are particularly dangerous since they look like harmless plastic bottles that anyone might innocently pick up when left in mail boxes, on lawns, or in public areas such as park benches.

Also telling in the Wilmot case is that, when questioned about the incident by reporters, Ms. Wilmot’s science teacher said that this was not part of any school assignment. For her part, Ms. Wilmot said that a friend had provided her with information about the ingredients and procedure, and claimed that she was “considering it as part of a science fair experiment.” This prompts me to ask what sort of high school science fair would allow a bomb to be entered, and whether Ms. Wilmot was simply using that as an excuse for having been caught creating a dangerous and potentially deadly explosive on school grounds.

Although the case may have been handled too harshly by officials, other young people have been caught and prosecuted for making these bombs in the past. Last year, for example, four young men were arrested by Dayton law enforcement for making Drano Bombs and detonating them in a residential area.

Sources are reporting today that an agreement has been reached in the Kiera Wilmot case that will allow her to avoid prosecution, and to eventually return to school. Unfortunately, the attention this case has brought will likely lead others to copy her behavior and to make more of these dangerous explosives.

Take this as an opportunity to begin a dialogue with your children, your friends, students, etc. If you see a plastic bottle partially filled with liquid, and especially if you see any type of aluminum foil inside or around the lid, do NOT pick it up. Report it, and keep others away until it can be investigated and disposed of properly.

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