Finding Safer Chemicals

Two poisonous looking toadstools

Most manufacturing companies will use chemicals somewhere in their business. They can be everyday chemicals that we are all familiar with like cleaning products, or more technical such as flocculants, dispersants, coolants, lubricants, adhesives and the list goes on. A lot of businesses are using the same chemicals they have always used, but as regulations change, technology develops, production ramps up, new products are introduced, and supply chains alter, this is not always possible. Finding new safer chemicals can be tricky as there is a lot to consider. They cannot just be safer; they also need to be effective.


There is no point in switching to a safer chemical if it does not work, or you need to use a lot more, or it produces quality issues. You also need to consider how to store it, handle it and dispose of it. In summary, you need to consider the whole cost implication of switching to new chemical. Another consideration when identifying a safe chemical is its concentration. This is especially true if it comes as a concentrate, a mixture, or a ready-made solution. Too low and you do not get its benefits, too high and it may be too dangerous to handle. Some products make bold claims about its key ingredient’s benefits, but when you read the ingredients list the concentration is far too low for it to be effective.


Safer chemical concentration

“All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities. It is only the dose which makes a thing a poison”- Paracelsus.


One of the first things you learn as a Chemistry undergraduate is that all chemicals are poisonous at high enough dosage. This is to instil respect and caution into reckless students. However, a more practical view is that all chemicals are safe at low enough dosage.


Knowing the safe ‘dose’ of a chemical is critical when designing or reviewing processes. A lot of processes involve chemicals at some stage. They may be required as an additive to keep machines running such as lubricants, cleaning fluids or coolants. The product or raw material itself might be hazardous, it may be corrosive, carcinogenic, or flammable. The process may produce nasty by-products like carbon dioxide or hydrogen sulfide.


The safe ‘dose’ of a chemical requires understanding of its harmful effects, the likelihood to cause harm, the severity of the harm, the routes of exposure and how potent it is. This information is important for managing risk and completing your COSHH assessments. Most of the key information can be found in material safety data sheets (MSDSs) provided when you buy a chemical. The safe concentration can be much harder to determine if you are mixing, diluting, reacting or generating chemicals. There is some good on-line information, such as the HSE website for Workplace Exposure Limits  and COSHH essentials. If you are struggling to find the right information and safer chemicals you should contact an expert for support and advice.


Making processes safer

To improve the safety of a process you are asked to consider either elimination, substitution or engineering controls to manage the hazardous chemical risk.


To eliminate a chemical hazard, you need to consider the concentration and exposure times. The aim is to eliminate the hazard not necessarily eliminate the chemical. With careful process design you can make sure that the chemical is used below its hazardous concentration, and that an operator can never be exposed to concentrations that exceed the workplace exposure limits. In this way you have eliminated the chemical hazard.


Substituting to safer chemicals can be a tricky proposition, it is easy to go for a chemical that has no hazards and is environmentally safe but cannot do the job you require. I remember when eco friendly washing up liquid first came out, it was better for the environment, but it didn’t dissolve grease. Getting the chemical substitution wrong in a process can result in defective products or cause damage to your equipment.


If you are relying on engineering systems to control the chemical hazard, then you need to assess the likeliness and severity of a failure of the system. For example if you were using a sealed system you need to assess the likeliness and severity of a leak. You would need to consider the properties of the leak (composition, pressure, flow rates, density etc.) and the environment (air flow, volume etc.). Presented with a similar problem many years ago I commissioned an air dispersion model, (much easier than attempting the calculation myself!), I then backed this up with an actual measurement of a simulated leak.


Chemical storage

If your business rarely uses chemicals or have used the same ones for a long time, it’s easy to get complacent. It is not uncommon to see open jars of chemicals on the workbench next to a cup of tea. Even companies that have proper chemical storage cabinets are guilty of storing incompatible materials together. The classics being oxidising agents with flammable solvents, these really make an explosive mix. If you are concerned, then it is time to chase up the latest MSDS and review your storage, handling and usage of each chemical. If you have any chemicals you have not used in a while, then it is time to dispose of them correctly, and remove the problem from your business.


Getting chemistry advice

The team at Production Support 56 are all qualified chemists, that specialise in chemical properties and handling, they also have many years’ experience providing Chemistry Solutions for industrial processes. If you are looking for safer chemicals for your process but do not want to compromise on quality, then get in touch with us for a nice science chat.


Image by Andreas from Pixabay