Every day we are exposed to a ubiquitous substance called “polyurethane.” Its everywhere, from our shoes, to our cars to our floors and walls. Polyurethane is used as a coating to insulate and protect materials, walls, floors and other items from sun, abuse and general wear and tear. It also happens to be one of the strongest and most affordable coatings that exists, which is why its so prevalent in our society.
Basically polyurethane is a polymer composed of a chain of organic units joined together by carbamate (urethane) links. Also known as rrethanes, this substance is used in the manufacture of roller coaster and skateboard wheels, rigid foam insulation panels, durable elastomeric microcellular foam seals, gaskets, automotive suspension bushings, high performance adhesives, electrical potting compounds, surface coatings and sealants and synthetic fibers like Spandex and hard-plastic parts for electronics.
The Problem of Isocyanates
While polyurethane is remarkably strong and durable it carries with it toxic isocyanates, which are organic compounds needed for its chemical composition.
Methyl isocyanate was the known cause in the Bhopal Disaster that killed thousands of people in December of 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Later the government of Madhya Pradesh had confirmed there was a total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas release Isocyanates. The death toll now reaches upwards of 20,000. These toxic compounds are known to be harmful irritants to the eyes and respiratory tract.
Conventional polyurethanes that are used in the United States require a host of precautionary steps in the application of its substance in order to avoid contact and irritation. These precautions also extend to those in the area of application who must vacate premises to avoid exposure, which ultimately leads to considerable expenses in the application process.
Recently the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its European counterpart have been working towards phasing out the use of toxic in polyurethane and now support new technologies with a Green advantage.
Epoxy resins do not have isocyanates and have immense chemical resistance properties that many have embraced in the use of industrial floor coatings. Yet, even epoxies have draw backs as their life span simply doesn’t measure up to a polyurethane and falls considerably short, at times as much as 5 to 10 times in comparison.
The most recent development in nano-technology to solve the problem of both durability and non-toxicity is Green Polyurethane, a new technology from a company called Hybrid Technologies Inc. out of Northern California, which has created the first every non-toxic polyurethane. The EPA has now recognized Green Polyurethane as a favorable alternative to traditional polyurethane and anticipates many applicators to follow suit in using greener solutions.
What Products May Have Toxic Isocyanates in Them?
- spandex pants
- tennis shoes
- sleeping pillow
- baseball cap
- garage floor coatings
In this final segment of this article we pose a question as Gandhi once said: “How can you be the change you wish to see?” Clearly we all have choices in what products we use and this buying power can sway the tide for large manufacturers to stop using toxins in our products. In this effort it is crucial that we read labels and educate ourselves on what is toxic and what is not. The question remains: Are you the change you wish to see?
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