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Toxic Materialsby Susan McElrath
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If you look up the word "toxic" in most any dictionary, you'll find that it means "poisonous." Most people want nothing to do with poisonous materials, but many people work with them every day. In fact, toxic materials have thousands of uses in industry. Many of the benefits we enjoy, such as safe water and food, medicine, transportation, and communications are made possible through the use of toxic materials. This week's Safety Topic explores toxic materials, their hazards, and how to work with them safely.
First, what exactly does "toxic" mean? We already know it means "poisonous," but let's take a closer look. "Toxicity" refers to a material's ability to harm living things. Some toxic materials, or toxins, may irritate the nose, eyes, and skin. Others may damage the body's internal organs. Other toxins may cause suffocation, sterility, cancer or other diseases. Some can be immediately fatal. Some materials don't appear toxic at all to adults, but can seriously damage an unborn child, and others may cause cell mutations, creating abnormalities in future generations. A material's toxicity is determined by two things: the amount of the material necessary to cause harm, and the possible extent of the damage.
The potential negative health effects sound awful, and indeed many of them are. But don't forget that thousands of toxic materials are used safely every day. Toxicity research has been done for years, and exposure limits for many toxic materials have been developed. In order for a toxic material to do harm, the body must be exposed to it. Exposure to a toxic material can occur in many ways. The material can be inhaled or ingested, may contact the skin, or be absorbed through the skin or eyes. Slight exposure does not necessarily mean minimal damage-the more highly toxic a material, the lower the permitted exposure.
There are many ways to control exposure to toxic materials. The most common ways are the use of ventilation controls and of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves and respirators. Companies are required to make sure exposures to toxic materials are kept below established exposure limits. They're also required to inform you of the hazards of the materials you work with, and inform you of exposure monitoring results. If you work with toxic materials, make sure you know exactly what you're working with. Follow the instructions of your company's policies and the material's Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for use, storage, and disposal of toxic materials. Make sure you know what PPE is appropriate for you to use-and use it faithfully. If you use toxic materials, always practice common-sense hygiene by washing your hands before you eat. You may be required to wear special clothes or shower after your shift. All of these procedures are designed to help keep you healthy, so be sure you follow the requirements. Of course, if you do have any problems with a toxic material you are using, report it immediately.
Toxic materials can be used safely for many beneficial purposes, but they demand an attitude of healthy respect. You need not fear the toxic effects if you know how to control them properly. Don't learn about toxic material hazards the hard way! Keep yourself healthy. Take the time to learn about the hazards of the materials you work with, and how to protect yourself and others from the danger.