ARTICLES / DANGERS OF ISOCYANATES
Dangers of Isocyanates
Dangers of Isocyanates
Nov 11, 2014
For over 50 years, we’ve been using polyurethane for a variety of applications we now take for granted. Polyurethane is used for foams in our seats and upholstery; thermal insulation for our homes and clothing; the rubber in footwear; paints and pigments; plastics used in electronics; wheels and tires; floor coatings for factories, gyms and a whole lot more. Polyurethane is made up of two types of chemicals: isocyanates and alcohol compounds. Once mixed, they can be shaped into various types of polyurethane which will then be used in their respective applications. Ideally after production, the ingredients become inert meaning they lose their reactiveness and toxicity but that is not always the case.
When polyurethane is not properly cured, humans face everyday exposure to various amounts of post-reactive toxic isocyanates. The issue of post-reactive isocyanates through end-products is not as alarming as the levels of exposure in the manufacturing sector but is still a cause for concern. It is not uncommon for the manufacturing sector to cut corners in order to answer to the growing demand for polyurethane products. So it’s best to be informed of the dangers of exposure to isocyanates and to be aware that there are now products that forego traditional polyurethane and instead use green polyurethane without the dangers of exposure to isocyanates.
So what are the dangers of isocyanate exposure? They include:
• Occupational asthma – is the most common is which usually affects workers in manufacturing plants that work with or manufacture polyurethane. It also occurs to painters and applicators or polyurethane-based industrial coatings. Other respiratory effects include chemical bronchitis and pneumonitis. Symptoms include coughing and shortness of breath.
• Skin irritation – is another effect of isocyanate exposure. Effects include rashes, itching, lesions and swelling of extremities.
• Death – exposure to very high levels can lead to severe disabilities like blindness and even death. The most notable case of isocyanates exposure occurred on December 1984 in India known as the Bhopal Disaster in which thousands died and thousands more suffered complications due to a gas leak containing isocyanates and other chemicals.
• Other effects – irritation to the eyes, nose, throat and also gastrointestinal system.
Safety measures and standards have already been imposed through the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in 1970 when working with products that contain isocyanates to minimize exposure. These include proper ventilation, the use of personal protective equipment and air monitoring. Aside from occupational hazards, trace amounts of isocyanates can also be acquired by consumers through improperly cured polyurethane-based products. Gradual, accumulated exposure could result in respiratory as well as skin problems.
It has been more than 50 years and technology now allows us to safely manufacture polyurethane without the involvement of isocyanates. This new substance is dubbed green polyurethane and is borne of advancements in the field of nanotechnology in which compounds that make up this new substance are harmlessly bonded or interconnected on the atomic level instead of relying on conventional chemical reactions. Awareness of the dangers of isocyanates has gradually increased the adoption and manufacture of products that make use of green polyurethane but it will take much more time before full adoption is realized. Until then it is important to be aware of the dangers and take appropriate precautions.
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