How to Find "Secret" Information on Chemical Hazards: Read the Safety Data Sheet

Health & Wellness on 10.31.11
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Did you know that all manufacturers of chemicals are required by law to describe clearly and completely the hazards of chemical products? A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), called simply a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) in many countries, documents the hazards of chemicals. Primarily intended for industrial and professional users, even the products on the shelf at your local store usually have MSDSs. How else would the employees at the store know how to clean up in case a couple cartons of household cleaner fall off a truck?

But here is a trick: you, as a consumer, can find or request the MSDS for products you buy. With a little understanding, the (M)SDS can help you avoid products that contain chemicals causing (or suspected of causing) allergies, cancer, birth defects, dangerous reactions, and more. So what do you need to know to read an (M)SDS? Well, you need not be a chemist...here are some tips for understanding a material safety data sheet.

Probably the hardest thing about helping users understand (M)SDSs is the fact that these documents are organized in many different formats, having between 8 and 16 sections. This will be changing. A United Nations program for a Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling (known as GHS for short) currently demands that all nations pass laws to require a 16 section (M)SDS. This article refers to the GHS format, but if you have a different type of (M)SDS just look around a bit: you will still find the key bits of information somewhere (some hints are given). The information is intended for industrial and professional users, so not everything is useful to you as a consumer, but you can find a lot of information in an (M)SDS.

Hazard Information
The first thing you probably are looking for is the hazard identification. The symbols (called pictograms by those in the know) on an (M)SDS are your first clue. The skull-and-crossbones indicates a hazard that can occur immediately on one exposure. The symbol on the right above indicates a health hazard that can occur much later, or only occurs after repeated or prolonged exposures. This symbol marks chemicals that are carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction, as well as those that can cause organ damage over longer term (like alcohol: you can drink a few martinis without harm, but a lifetime of overconsumption results in liver damage).

An overview describing the main hazards is found in section 2 of the GHS format and most 8 or 9 section formats (section 3 of older 16-section formats). Information will be given to describe effects that the product might have in contact with eyes or skin, and in case of inhalation or ingestion. Often, hazards like flammability or environmental dangers can be found here also. This section will let you know immediately if your product is pretty nasty or mostly harmless.

CMRs: Carcinogens, Mutagens and Reproductive Toxins
Usually, to find out if the product in which you are interested contains chemicals which are suspected of causing allergies, cancer, genetic mutations, birth defects or reduced fertility, you need to look a bit further. Section 11 of the GHS format describes the toxicology of the product. This section is intended for a doctor or professional toxicologist, so it is full of acronyms and strange short-hand like "IARC category 2A" or "carcinogen cat. 1; R45". These confusing notations let safety professionals know if a chemical is

  • known to cause effects in humans
  • suspected to cause effects in humans, or
  • known to cause effects in animals which raise concerns about hazards for humans.

But you probably want to avoid all levels of chemicals with serious carcinogenic, mutagenic or reprotoxic effects. So you are looking mainly for the information that the chemicals in your product are "not listed".

A couple hints for the ambitious hazard hunter: the European safety agencies are much more active in classifying chemicals as carcinogens (causing cancer), mutagens (causing gene mutations that can be passed on to your offspring) or reprotoxins (causing birth or growth defects or reducing fertility). Also, California proposition 65 requires that all known or suspected carcinogens in a product be declared: this information is usually found in section 15 under regulatory information. These laws all require very clear statements, so you can be sure that if you do not see "may cause cancer" or "limited evidence of a carcinogenic effect" in an EU data sheet, or if you do see "Does not contain any chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer" -- you are in the safe zone.

Gender Benders
For the so-called gender benders, you will need to hunt for the technical term "endocrine disruptor". These chemicals may disrupt the hormone systems and can result in birth defects relating to sexual organs, or influence the proportion of males or females being born

What about allergies?
The language used for chemicals which may cause allergic reactions often does not refer to allergies. Instead, you will need to look for the words "sensitizer" or "sensitization". These words are used because, like a bee sting, no chemical causes allergies the first time you contact it. Instead, a person's body identifies the chemical as foreign and at the next exposure, sets the immune system to work fighting the chemical. In many cases, these reactions will get worse with every subsequent exposure, causing miserable skin rashes or even life-threatening asthma attacks. Once a person has an allergic reaction, the only solution is usually to completely avoid the chemical which causes the allergy.

Dangerous for the Environment
The symbol of a dead fish by a dead tree indicates a product has dangers for the environment. Pointing out the difficulties of creating easy systems for communicating hazards in the international, multi-cultural and multi-lingual environment, studies have shown that some people identified the fish-and-tree as a positive sign: good fishing here! In spite of that, the symbol (invented as an orange square for European chemical labelling) has been adopted by the GHS inside the hallmark GHS red-square-on-point frame. But this easy clue cannot be found on traditional American (M)SDSs, many of which do not yet have any information about environmental hazards. Fortunately, most American companies are moving voluntarily towards better reporting of environmental hazards.

Other Interesting Information
So now you have scratched the surface of what an (M)SDS has to offer. But much more interesting information is open for your review. You can find hints on first aid in case of exposure (section 4), how to fight a fire (section 5), how to clean up spills (section 6), proper handling and storage (section 7), exposure controls and protective equipment including what types of gloves are effective (section 8), physical and chemical properties (section 9), dangerous reactions (section 10). Section 14, with information for transporting the chemicals, will always give hints about the main hazards of a chemical product: flammable, oxidizing, toxic and so on. An (M)SDS goes well beyond databases like GoodGuide for learning about chemical hazards. Light reading it is not, but enlightening.

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