What are Toxic Industrial Chemicals?

toxic industrial chemicals

What Are Industrial Chemicals?

Industrial chemicals are exactly what they sound like – chemicals that are used in industrial processes or for industrial operations. These chemicals are used to create materials used in manufacturing, combine materials, disinfect, lubricate, and more.

Some industrial chemicals are exclusively used in industrial settings, while others also make it into commercial products as ingredients.

Examples of industrial chemicals include solvents, reactants, stabilizers, plasticizers, lubricants, coatings, dyes, colorants, inks, mastics (which prevent corrosion), fragrances, flame retardants, conductors, and insulators.

What Is a Toxic Chemical?

As a general definition, toxic chemicals are poisonous, causing at least one negative health effect.

Regulatory bodies sometimes have narrower definitions of "toxic." For example, the United Nations' GHS toxic symbol means the substances is acutely and severely dangerous, while chemicals with less severe effects are called "harmful" and chemicals that create health problem over time are called "health hazards."

"Hazardous substance" is a related term. OSHA uses it to lump toxic chemicals in with other substances that present a health or safety threat. For example, physically hazardous substances have properties (like being explosive, flammable, or corrosive) that put people at risk of injury. These substances aren't classified as toxic by the traditional definition, but they are dangerous to humans.

Hazardous Materials (Construction)

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Hazardous Materials (General Industry)

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Hazardous Substances and Industrial Hygiene

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What is a Toxic Industrial Chemical (TIC)?

"Toxic industrial chemical" is a term used by OSHA, FEMA, and other health organizations. Even though it contains "toxic" in the name, the term is more similar in scope to a "hazardous substance."

Toxic industrial chemicals include gases, liquids, or solids that present a health hazard, physical hazard, or both.

If we already have a term for this group of chemicals, why do we need another one? The term hazardous substance is typically used in a workplace safety context, but the TIC label describes the way many of these chemicals represent a broader threat.

TICs are hazardous substances that:

  • Have commercial or medical applications,
  • Are, therefore, sold and transported frequently in large quantities,
  • Can cause serious health effects, and
  • Are often persistent if released into the environment

Put those factors together and you have a category of chemicals that can easily be bought or stolen in large quantities, released, and harm a large number of people (potentially for a long time).

In other words, toxic industrial chemicals make excellent weapons for terrorism.

On a more mundane level, there's always the possibility of a chemical accident should something go wrong with the use, storage, or transportation of TICs.

Signs and Symptoms of Chemical Exposure

The signs and symptoms of exposure to toxic industrial chemicals will depend on the substance, the method of exposure, and the degree of toxicity in the body (which is related to the amount and concentration in the environment and the length of time you're exposed).

The results of exposure can even vary by person. Children, the elderly, and people with existing health problems will feel the effects of harmful chemicals first and most acutely. Plus, some people are just more sensitive to certain chemicals, whether from previous exposure or some innate quality.

Inhalation of toxic fumes, vapors, or aerosols is one of the fastest methods of exposure because a chemical can quickly enter and diffuse through the body. Coughing or difficulty breathing are common immediate symptoms of exposure to high doses of toxic fumes.

Many toxic industrial chemicals, whether inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin, will cause irritation of sensitive tissues like the nose, mouth, throat, eyes, or skin. At high enough doses, TICs can be deadly.

It's possible to be exposed to TICs and experience no serious effects in the short term. Some types of exposure will cause delayed or long-term health impacts, instead.

How to React to Toxic Industrial Chemical Exposure

As with symptoms, the best way to deal with chemical exposure can depend on many factors. However, there are a few general guidelines.

First of all, you want to minimize the amount of toxicity in the body. That means escaping the area where you were exposed and getting the TIC off of you as quickly as possible.

The circumstances of exposure will dictate what escape looks like. You want to find fresh air as quickly as possible. If the chemical release happened inside a particular building, you need to get out quickly. If the release was outdoors, leave the area as soon as possible or go indoors.

Whether the release happens inside or outside, sometimes the evacuation process can create more risk than staying put. For example, if a whole city experiences a toxic fume release outside, or if a crowded building experiences a release along the exit routes. In these circumstances, authorities may issue a shelter-in-place order. That means you need to go inside, close yourself into a building or room (depending on the situation), and remove all sources of air coming inside. Close doors and windows and turn off intake fans, air conditioning, or forced-air heat. Only recirculate air that's already in the building or room.

Once you've escaped the source of additional exposure, you need to decontaminate – remove any traces of the chemical from your body. Remove contaminated clothing while minimizing skin contact. Place the contaminated items in a sealed plastic bag (and double bag if possible).

Your first instinct will be to wash away any chemical that remains on your skin but try to wait until you have more information. Some chemicals may react to contact with water, and washing will make it worse.

The best thing to do is tune into the tv, radio, or another source of reliable information to learn how to safely neutralize the chemical and when it's safe to leave.

How Can You Protect Yourself from TIC Exposure?

In many cases, there's no reasonable way to anticipate and prepare for exposure to toxic industrial chemicals. The general public can only react. However, certain professions can prepare by educating themselves and training for prevention and response.

Given the implications of TICs in terrorism, federal agencies encourage certain preparedness measures. First responders often create health and safety plans (HASPs) for chemical release and drill various scenarios. Healthcare facilities need emergency management plans for decontaminating and treating victims, as well as personal exposure prevention measures like PPE.

Of course, if you work directly with toxic industrial chemicals – or in an environment where you may be exposed, you're at a higher risk than most people. That's why OSHA requires employee training in the safe handling of hazardous materials and the principles of industrial hygiene. Enroll today for convenient OSHA-authorized online courses!