This blog is my attempt to reconnect with the world of chemistry. I have a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and make a living doing research for a large company in Michigan. As times have changed, that company has changed its focus and I no longer have as much chance to do the basic, fundamental research which I most enjoy. Through this blog, I am hoping to recapture the magic which I felt during my graduate (and undergraduate) days in college. Expect topics on chemistry and alchemy along with some non-chemistry related items which I think might be interesting.

"The chymists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapour, soot and flame, poisons and poverty; yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly that may I die if I would change places with the Persian King."

Johann Joachim Becher (phlogistonist)
Acta Laboratorii Chymica Monacensis, seu Physica Subterranea, (1669).

Friday, June 27, 2008

Chemophobia Part II – MSDS’s

Note: A three minute storm was sufficient to knock out our power again for about 5 hours on Thursday evening, so this post was somewhat delayed.

Wow! The post on chemophobia evoked more comments than any other topic I've come up with. Must be a lot of pent-up emotion, I guess. During that post I failed to mention an article that covers the subject in much greater depth. The writer jokes that if everyone were required to obtain an MSDS for everything, they’d eventually get over chemophobia. Possibly, but I’d be more concerned that making the general public aware of the existence of MSDS’s might just backfire on us. I mean, has anyone here actually read an MSDS sheet for commonly used lab chemicals? Even the most benign material can sound like a potential terrorist weapon after reading through those things. I once looked up the MSDS for “oil of wintergreen” (ingredient in Icy Hot and mint toothpaste) and capsaicin (active component of chili peppers, also used for muscle pain relief). Despite the fact that these materials are meant to be eaten and/or placed on our skin, their MSDS’s tended to scare me away from their use. ("Sorry, honey, I can't really bring myself to brush my teeth anymore"). Here are a few sentences taken from an MSDS for another common chemical usually found in the lab:

Mutagenic for mammalian somatic cells, bacteria, and yeast.
May cause cancer based on animal data.
May cause adverse reproductive effects and birth defects.
May be toxic to heart, gastrointestinal tract, central nervous system.
Repeated or prolonged exposure can damage target organs.
Hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant), of ingestion, or inhalation.

May cause gastrointestinal (digestive) tract irritation with epigastric pain, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Affects metabolism and cardiovascular system with symptoms including increase in metabolism, flushing, palpitations, rapid heart rate, dysrhythmias, hypotension, blood pressure elevation and weight loss, metabolic acidosis. May affect brain and behavior/central nervous system.. Symptoms may include nervousness, anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, dizziness, tremor, seizures, convulsions, hallucinations, somnolence, toxic psychosis, tremors, convulsions, ataxia. May also affect blood, respiration (hyperventilation), and urinary system (mild increase in urinary volume and urinary sodium excretion), and may directly produce hypokalemia.

Whoa, that sure sounds like something I should handle with some care! Now I don’t know how many of you actually use 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine in the lab, but I’d suggest being very careful with it. Even non-organikers may have cause for alarm since it is commonly found in aqueous solutions of coffee, tea, Mountain Dew, Coke, and various energy drinks.

So do we really need non-scientists reading these things? I’ve run across plenty of websites where people (obviously not science majors) were misusing MSDS’s to support their argument (e.g., anti-fluoridation groups). The fact that they occasionally used the wrong MSDS's (fluorine instead of fluoride or hexafluorosilicate) did not help their cause, IMO.

By the way, the idea for using caffeine as an example originally came from this website.


Ψ*Ψ said...

Yeah, MSDSs can induce a little panic. Someone once told me he just looked over the label on the bottle and gauged the danger by the number of exclamation points.

J M Carr said...

Our Health and Safety Department requires that we keep physical copies of MSDS's in our stockroom. Once, I splashed dihydrogen monoxide in my eye, and the first aid procedure was to wash my eyes out with water.

On that note, have you ever read the MSDS for sea sand?

Chemgeek said...

Oh, the sea sand warnings are my all-time favorite. That stuff is the most dangerous stuff in the world.

Unknown said...

I had an order clerk come in my office in a panic state because she read the MSDS for the breathing air I'd ordered. The MSDS warned that the air contained 79% nitrogen, a known sufficant. She couldn't get a deep enough breath and I thought she was going to pass out until I convinced her she'd been breathing it her whole life.