Sulphuric acid hazards

The New Straits Times, April 10,1995

Q: I handled sulphuric acid regularly at my workplace. Can you tell me the personal protection measures to be taken as well as the regular medical examination to assess the effects of long-term exposure to this acid?

A: Sulphuric acid is corrosive in nature. It can affect the health of a worker who handles it through the inhalation of fumes produced from concentrated solutions.

These fumes can be easily seen when a container of the acid is opened. If the concentrated solution is accidentally swallowed, only a small amount is required to cause death.

In cases of improper handling, the effects of the exposure to our health can be divided into two classes, depending on the duration of the exposure and the concentration of the acid.

The first type known as the immediate or short term effect occurs when a victim has been exposed to a working environment which contains a high amount of fumes in the air.

Among the effects are irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, dental erosion, mouth ulcers and difficulty in breathing. Splashes to the eyes or the skin will cause burns. The second type or the chronic effect occurs when there is prolonged or repeated contact to dilute amount of the fumes in the air. The effects would be similar to the immediate effect with the exception of being less severe but more persistent.

To protect yourself, always wear protective clothing to eliminate any possibility of exposure to the chemical. The protective clothing should consist of impervious clothing, gloves and face shield. If the volume of the acid is small, a fume cupboard should be used to remove the fumes buildup.

If the volume is large, a respirator should be put on especially for operations that require entry into tanks or closed vessels. Always ensure that the working place is well ventilated.

Know the available facilities for emergency use in case of spillage onto clothing or the eyes. Such facilities can be be a shower area for a quick drenching of the body and an eye-wash fountain.

As for the medical examination for chronic exposure to the acid, normally a doctor would obtain a baseline record for future health monitoring before an employee goes into employment. For this, a medical examination of the respiratory system which includes chest X-ray, eyes, teeth and skin condition are carried out. If your employer provides regular medical checkups during your employment, then request a physical examination to be conducted by the same doctor who keeps the initial record. Inform the doctor of your present job responsibility and request a re-examination of the respiratory system, eyes, teeth and skin for any evidence of chronic disorders.

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