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What Chemicals are Toxic?

Written by Steve Hudgik September 2013

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What Is A Toxic Substance?

The EPA defines a toxic substance as any chemical, or chemical mixture, that may be harmful to the environment or human health if inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin.  Substances that are safe to use, and do not harm humans and the environment, are called non-toxic substances.  How do we know what chemicals are toxic and which are not?

Knowing what chemicals are toxic is important for protecting employees and other people, as well as the environment. In addition, there are regulations and standards that specifically apply to toxic chemicals. Not complying with these can result in harm to people and the environment, as well as result in significant penalties.

We cannot just assume a substance is non-toxic, or that it has been diluted or treated in such a way that it has been made to be non-toxic. We need to know, without any doubt, what chemicals are toxic.  How can we identify toxic chemicals?

Lists of Toxic Chemicals

Toxic substances may be in many forms. They may be dusts, fumes, liquids, gases, and mixtures. Toxic substances include common substances such as paints, fuels, and solvents, and there are toxic substances that unusual and rare, and only produced in highly controlled situations.

Toxic substances can be identified using various testing methods. But, having every user of a chemical substance conduct tests each time a substance is suspected of being toxic is not practical. Instead of testing substances, there are a number of ways to look up the needed information and know what chemicals are toxic.

  • OSHA has created a list called the “OSHA Chemical Sampling Information” file. Created for the use of OSHA employees, this list is available for anyone to use.  It contains information on approximately 1,500 substances, and can be used to identify the approximately 400 substances that are regulated by OSHA.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has created lists that identify hazardous wastes.  These are known as the “F,” “K,” “P,” and “U” lists. They identify hazardous wastes, for regulation purposes, based on various characteristics.
  • All manufactures and importers of chemicals are required to make Safety Data Sheets available that, among other information, describe the hazards of the chemicals they sell. 

OSHA Chemical Sampling Information

OSHA's Chemical Sampling Information is intended as a basic reference for OSHA personnel, but it is available to everyone.

The OSHA Chemical Sampling Information includes, in a concise format, data on chemical substances that may be encountered by OSHA inspectors during an industrial hygiene investigation. The information includes exposure limits such as the OSHA PELs, NIOSH RELs, and AIHA Weel. It also includes information on health factors, such as information about the symptoms resulting from exposure, the health effects resulting from exposure, and the organs that will be harmed by exposure.

EPA Hazardous Waste Listings

The EPA uses hazardous waste lists to identify the wastes the EPA regulates. There are four EPA lists:

  • F list — identifies hazardous wastes from common industrial or manufacturing processes. The F list wastes are known as wastes from nonspecific sources.
  • K list — identifies certain wastes from specific industries as hazardous.
  • P list  — identifies pure or commercial grade formulations of some unused chemicals as acute hazards.
  • U list — this list is similar to the “P list” in that it identifies pure or commercial grade formulations of certain some unused chemicals as toxic.

Each of these lists designates from 30 to a few hundred wastes as hazardous.

Safety Data Sheets

Safety Data Sheets (SDS), formerly known as Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), are required by OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard (HCS). While you will need to be familiar with the OSHA and EPA lists to know whether a substance is regulated, the Safety Data Sheet is the best source for identifying what chemicals are toxic. The SDS provides information about a chemical's hazards, and the steps need to be taken to protect people and the environment from those hazards.

As of June 1, 2015 the OSHA HCS requires that Safety Data Sheets be in a uniform format, and that they include specific section numbers, headings, and information. The 16 required sections are:

  • Section 1 - Identification of the product, which includes:
    • the product identifier
    • manufacturer or distributor name, address, phone number; emergency phone number
    • recommended use
    • restrictions on use
  • Section 2 – Identify all hazards related to the chemical, and specifies the information needed to be included on labels.
  • Section 3 -  The composition of the product, including information on ingredients.
  • Section 4 - First-aid measures that includes:
    • a list of important symptoms, including effects, acute, and delayed.
    • the required treatment
  • Section 5 - Fire-fighting measures including suitable extinguishing techniques and equipment, and the chemical hazards resulting from combustion.
  • Section 6 -  Accidental release measures that include:
    • emergency procedures
    • protective equipment
    • proper methods of containment and cleanup
  • Section 7 -  Handling and storage information, including precautions for safe handling and storage, and information about incompatibilities.
  • Section 8 -  Exposure controls and personal protection information. Includes:
    • OSHA's Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs)
    • Threshold Limit Values (TLVs)
    • Appropriate engineering controls
    • Personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Section 9 - The physical and chemical properties.
  • Section 10 – Information about the stability and reactivity, and the possibility of hazardous reactions.
  • Section 11 - Toxicological information that includes:
    • routes of exposure
    • related symptoms, acute and chronic effects
    • numerical measures of toxicity
  • Section 12 - Ecological information.
  • Section 13 - Disposal considerations.
  • Section 14 - Transport information.
  • Section 15 - Regulatory information.
  • Section 16 -  Other information, includes the date of preparation or last revision.

Required Labeling

With the exception of some secondary containers, all chemical containers are required to labeled. Both OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard, and NFPA 704 require labeling to identify chemical hazards, meaning that the labeling must identify the hazards of toxic chemicals.

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