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Experiments disappear in puff of smoke

A TRADITIONAL competition for students of chemistry, the Chemistry Olympiad, may have to take place without practical experiments for the first time in its 48 years of existence. The head of the Slovak Committee of the Chemistry Olympiad, Anton Sirota, told the SITA newswire that this will be the likely outcome of a dispute between chemists and the Public Health Authority of the Slovak Republic (ÚVZ).

A TRADITIONAL competition for students of chemistry, the Chemistry Olympiad, may have to take place without practical experiments for the first time in its 48 years of existence. The head of the Slovak Committee of the Chemistry Olympiad, Anton Sirota, told the SITA newswire that this will be the likely outcome of a dispute between chemists and the Public Health Authority of the Slovak Republic (ÚVZ).

“Someone is interested in totally splitting the Chemistry Olympiad and chemistry lessons at schools,” he complained. Sirota added he had no idea who was behind the move, or why they had acted. “It seems that the national round will be only theoretical, without real experiments. Sometimes, things are taken to absurd lengths,” he complained.

The problem surfaced when the public health authority started receiving complaints last year from parents and teachers about schools that were not observing the law when it came to students handling carcinogenic substances. The ÚVZ has insisted that the rules must be observed unless an exemption is issued, and noted that the Chemistry Olympiad had not been issued an exemption.

“My only effort and legitimate duty is to ask for the Chemistry Olympiad to be implemented in compliance with the current legislation concerning young people working within the framework of health protection,” Slovakia’s main hygienist, Gabriel Šimko, stated. He added that Slovak students were not exposed to dangerous chemicals in international rounds of the Chemistry Olympiad held in Turkey and Japan.

Sirota rejected this. “Such substances are stated in the requirements sent to us from Washington, where the international round takes place this year,” he said. He further stressed that students who make it to the Slovak national – or the international – round are not amateurs and can handle even dangerous substances in a safe way. Originally, the Slovak Chemistry Olympiad was to be organised between February 13 and 17, but due to the dispute it has been postponed indefinitely.

According to Sirota, the organisers have redesigned the tasks so that they comply with the law. But another problem has surfaced in the meantime: the national round now lacks a venue as schools that the organisers had previously negotiated with have withdrawn. They fear that if the event is under state supervision, officials might notice that their laboratories are outdated. Sirota claimed that it was this concern that had led them to refuse to cooperate with the Chemistry Olympiad. Currently, organisers are looking for other solutions, as the national round of the event is part of the qualification for the international round.

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