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Purchasing the Safest Lab Chemicals

Prior to the new school year, most science teachers select and order their lab chemicals. Before placing an order, however, teachers should consider the health risks associated with using hazardous chemicals in the classroom laboratory.

Making the right purchase

To purchase the least chemically hazardous material possible, science teachers should first determine whether the hazard is health, physical, or environmental by running a hazards analysis. This involves:

• securing and reviewing the Safety Data Sheet (i.e., Section 2: Hazard(s) Identification, Section 7: Handling and Storage, Section 8: Exposure Controls/Personal Protection, and Section 11: Toxicological Information),

• checking the appropriateness of the chemical’s use on Rehab the Lab’s school chemical list,

• reaching out to the chemical supplier for additional information on the chemical’s potential hazards,

• reading professional publications such as the Journal of Chemical Health and Safety for health and safety information on chemical hazards, and

• checking out the chemistry listserv on NSTA’s listservs.

Next, complete a risks assessment. Some risks related to chemicals might include:

• breathing in vapors, gases, and particulates;

• exposure to skin by splashing, dipping, and airborne dust;

• exposure to chemicals by sticking fingers in the mouth or eating or drinking;

• exposure to eyes from vapor, gasses, particulates, or splashes; or

• puncture of the skin.

Depending on the chemical, further safety actions might need to be taken. Check out the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Hierarchy of Controls (see image below) to take the appropriate action.

Additional considerations

Science teachers also need to consider several issues that may arise from using hazardous chemicals. First, they need to be aware of long-term exposure to hazardous chemicals, which can cause health complications. Appropriate ventilation in the lab, reading information in the Safety Data Sheet (SDS), and using personal protective equipment (e.g., particulate respirator) can help prevent long-term exposure. Employees usually have a right to be tested for exposure to hazardous chemicals and may ask their employer to have a worksite tested by a licensed industrial hygienist. If female employees or students who are pregnant will be working in your lab, be sure to read the SDS for information about reproductive toxins, harm to the fetus, and more.

Additionally: If you or a student is accidentally exposed to a hazardous chemical, read sections 3 (Hazards Identification Section), 5 (Fire and Explosion Data), 6 (Accidental Release Measures), and 10 (Stability and Reactivity Data) of the SDS. Finally, consider the storage and disposal of hazardous chemicals. The SDS Section 7 (Handling and Storage), local school policies, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University of Iowa, and the National Fire Protection Association all have recommendations for storing hazardous chemicals. Before disposing of the chemicals, read section 13 (Disposal Considerations) of the SDS and check with the school facilities manager for information on how the chemical should be appropriately disposed of.

Submit questions regarding safety in K–12 to Ken Roy at safesci@sbcglobal.net, or leave him a comment below. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.

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