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Using Material Safety DataSheets

A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) is a written document that provides product users and emergency personnel with information and procedures needed for handling and working with chemicals.

by Anne Helmenstine
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A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) is a written document that provides product users and emergency personnel with information and procedures needed for handling and working with chemicals. MSDSs have been around, in one form or another, since the time of the ancient Egyptians. Although MSDS formats vary somewhat between countries and authors, they generally outline the physical and chemical properties of the product, describe potential hazards associated with the substance (health, storage cautions, flammability, radioactivity, reactivity, etc.), prescribe emergency actions, and often include manufacturer identification, address, MSDS date, and emergency phone numbers.

Why Should I Care?

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Although MSDSs are targeted at workplaces and emergency personnel, any consumer can benefit from having important product information available. An MSDS provides information about proper storage of a substance, first aid, spill response, safe disposal, toxicity, flammability, and additional useful material. MSDSs are not limited to reagents used for chemistry, but are provided for most substances, including common household products such as cleaners, gasoline, pesticides, certain foods, drugs, and office and school supplies. Familiarity with MSDSs allows for precautions to be taken for potentially dangerous products; seemingly safe products may be found to contain unforeseen hazards.

Where do I find Material Safety Data Sheets?

In many countries, employers are required to maintain MSDSs for their workers, so a good place to locate MSDSs is on the job. Also, some products intended for consumer use are sold with MSDSs enclosed. College and university chemistry departments will maintain MSDSs on many chemicals. However, if you are reading this article online then you have easy access to thousands of MSDSs via the internet. Many companies have MSDSs for their products available online via their websites. Since the point of an MSDS is to make hazard information available to consumers and since copyrights don't tend to apply to restrict distribution, MSDS are widely available. Certain MSDSs, such as those for drugs, may be more difficult to obtain, but are still available upon request.

Learn How to Find MSDSs

To locate an MSDS for a product you will need to know its name. Alternate names for chemicals are often provided on the MSDS, but there is no standardized naming of substances.

  • The chemical name or specific name is used most often to find MSDSs for health effects and protective measures. IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) conventions are used more often than common names. Synonyms are often listed on MSDSs.
  • The molecular formula may be used to locate a chemical of known composition.
  • You can usually search for a substance using its CAS (Chemical Abstracts Service) registry number. Different chemicals may have the same name, but each will have its own CAS number.
  • Sometimes the easiest way to locate a product is to search by manufacturer.
  • Products may be found using their US Defense Department NSN. A National Supply Number is a four-digit FSC class code number plus a nine-digit National Item Identification Number or NIIN.
  • A trade name or product name is the brand, commercial, or marketing name the manufacturer gives the product. It does not specify what chemicals are in the product or whether the product is a mixture of chemicals or a single chemical.
  • A generic name or chemical family name describes a group of chemicals with related physical and chemical properties. Sometimes an MSDS will list only the generic name of a product, although in most countries laws require that chemical names also be listed.

How do I use an MSDS?

An MSDS might appear to be intimidating and technical, but the information is not intended to be difficult to understand. You might simply scan an MSDS to see if any warnings or hazards are delineated. If the content is difficult to understand there are online MSDS glossaries to help define any unfamiliar words and often contact information for further explanations. Ideally you would read an MSDS before obtaining a product so that you could prepare proper storage and handling. More often, MSDSs are read after a product is purchased. In this case, you can scan the MSDS for any safety precautions, health effects, storage cautions, or disposal instructions. MSDSs often list symptoms that might indicate exposure to the product. An MSDS is an excellent resource to consult when a product has been spilled or a person has been exposed to the product (ingested, inhaled, spilled on skin). The instructions on an MSDS do not replace those of a health care professional, but can be helpful in emergency situations. When consulting an MSDS, keep in mind that few substances are pure forms of molecules, so the content of an MSDS will depend on the manufacturer. In other words, two MSDSs for the same chemical may contain different information, depending on the impurities of the substance or the method used in its preparation.

Important Information

Material Safety Data Sheets are not created equal. Theoretically, MSDSs can be written by pretty much anyone (although there is some liability involved), so the information is only as accurate as the author's references and understanding of the data. According to a 1997 study by OSHA "one expert panel review established that only 11% of the MSDSs were found to be accurate in all of the following four areas: health effects, first aid, personal protective equipment, and exposure limits. Further, the health effects data on the MSDSs frequently are incomplete and the chronic data are often incorrect or less complete than the acute data". This doesn't mean that MSDSs are useless, but it does indicate that information needs to be used with caution and that MSDSs should be obtained from trustworthy and reliable sources. The bottom line: Respect the chemicals you use. Know their hazards and plan your response to an emergency before it happens!

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