Written by Steve Hudgik September 2013
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?
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'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.
The EPA uses hazardous waste lists to identify the wastes the EPA regulates. There are four EPA lists:
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:
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.