KCSE candidate burnt as chemical explodes in lab

Apollo Otieno, a candidate at St Peter Mixed Secondary School in Kajulu, at Kombewa Sub-County Hospital in Kisumu on November 12, 2019. PHOTO | ELIZABETH OJINA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Reports from schools around the country indicate others were affected in different ways.
  • An unconfirmed number of students and teachers in different parts of the country were treated at their schools.
  • Some schools gave the candidates milk to neutralise the effects of the chemical.

Like thousands of other students across the country sitting the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination, Apollo Otieno, 20, was looking forward to the chemistry practical paper last Friday.

But in a tragic incident in the laboratory at St Peter’s Mixed Secondary School in Kajulu, Kisumu county, a chemical exploded on his face, leaving him nursing serious burns.


“I started the examinations well. In fact, I did three questions before the chemical exploded on my face. I had to struggle throughout the examination,” said Otieno said from his bed at Kombewa sub-county hospital, from where he is doing the remaining papers.

Otieno is one of the students and teachers affected by the chemical known as xylene, which candidates were expected to heat and observe the reaction.

The Ministry of Education downplayed reports of injuries and other negative effects of the chemical on students and teachers, with Cabinet Secretary George Magoha saying more dangerous chemicals had been used before.

An unconfirmed number of students and teachers in different parts of the country were treated at their schools, but many more waited for the effects caused by the highly flammable chemical to wear off.

Ms Cherusha Nyakeri, a teacher at St Monica Girls Kitale in Trans-Nzoia County, who is expectant, had to be rushed to Galilee Hospital after developing complications following exposure to the chemical.

She was immediately admitted. Another teacher who requested anonymity for fear of victimisation said he had been sickly since Friday.


“I was in the room with the students for two hours and when the students heated the chemical, it produced huge flames and fumes and since then, I have been feeling sick and dizzy,” said the teacher.

Some schools gave the candidates milk to neutralise the effects of the chemical.

 An asthmatic candidate in Mbeere South Sub-county, Embu County, was said to have suffered attacks after inhaling the fumes produced after heating the chemical. She had to be taken out of the examination room several times and given milk.

“We had to rush some of the students to hospital after the examination because they were complaining of chest pains, headaches and stomach discomfort. We gave the rest milk,” a teacher from Embu County said.

A number of supervisors and invigilators who were exposed to the fumes were reported to have also been taken ill.

A principal at one of the schools in Nyeri County told the Nation that a confidential instructions from Knec directed them to buy cyclohexane, but there was a shortage of the chemical, leading to instructions to buy an alternative.


Some people feel the shortage was deliberately created

Kenya National Examinations Council acting Chief Executive Officer Mercy Karogo sent a circular on November 1, 2019, asking principals to purchase xylene as an alternative to the safer cyclohexane. The circular also directed the school heads where to buy the chemical.

“This is to inform you in case of difficulties in obtaining cyclohexane, you are advised to replace it with xylene. This is available at Kobian Kenya Ltd, Chemical and School Supplies or any other chemical distributors,” the circular reads.

Three days later, another supplier, School Equipment Centre Ltd, wrote to Dr Karogo requesting her to instruct school administrators to store the chemical in glass bottles.

“We have heard that some suppliers are packing it in plastic bottles. Xylene is a solvent and reacts with plastic. We have enough xylene in glass bottles,” the e-mail marked “urgent” says.


Knec was on the spot last week over the framing of a question in the English paper that appeared to refer to the author as a character. Another character’s name in the same paper was misspelt.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “Exposure to xylene can irritate the eyes, nose, skin, and throat. Xylene can also cause headaches, dizziness, confusion, loss of muscle coordination.”

Chemistry is an optional subject but is studied by most students in secondary schools.

Some head teachers also complained about the cost of the chemical which they said was going for between Sh9,000 and Sh10,000 a litre.

But CS Magoha maintains the chemical is not harmful.

By David Muchunguh, Elizabeth Ojina, Reginah Kinogu, Gerald Bwisa