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How To Effectively Handle and Manage Corrosive Chemicals

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Author: ACTenviro
Date: July 19, 2024

Imagine a substance so potent it can eat through metal, burn skin on contact, and release harmful fumes.

Science fiction? Nope, they're real. That's the power of corrosive chemicals. Ominous as they sound, they are essential ingredients in many industrial processes. From everyday cleaning products to powerful manufacturing tools, corrosive chemicals are present in various forms and commonly used. 

Do you know that you're using some at home? Drain cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, rust removers---all of these are corrosive substances or caustic materials.

A lack of proper management can turn these substances from valuable assets into safety hazards and environmental threats.

This article helps you effectively manage corrosive chemicals. Know about the properties of these substances, explore safe handling and storage techniques, and learn about the ever-important realm of spill response and disposal. Through best practices, you can harness the power of corrosive chemicals while minimizing the risks they pose.

What Are Corrosive Chemicals?

Corrosive chemicals are substances that can eat away at and damage other materials including living tissue. They work through a process of chemical reactions that break down the molecular structure of the contacted material. 

Common Properties of Corrosive Materials

What does corrosive mean? There are many kinds of corrosive chemicals, but they share a few general properties in common: 

  • Destructive to Living Tissue: This is a defining characteristic. Corrosive materials can cause severe burns and damage upon contact with skin, eyes, and internal organs.
  • Material Degradation: They can break down and eat away at other materials such as metals, organic materials (like wood and plastics), and inorganic substances (like concrete).
  • Chemical Reaction: Their destructive nature is due to their ability to undergo chemical reactions with other materials. These chemical reactions disrupt the other material's molecular structure.
  • Varying Forms: Corrosive materials can exist as solids, liquids, or gases. Solids like sodium hydroxide pellets and dust can be corrosive, while liquids like sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid are common examples. Corrosive gases like chlorine and ammonia can also be very dangerous.
  • pH Level: While a helpful indicator, pH isn't the sole defining factor. Acids (typically with a pH lower than 7) and bases (typically with a pH higher than 7) are common types of corrosive. However, some neutral pH substances can also be corrosive.
  • Heat Generation: Dissolving some corrosive solids in water can be exothermic. That means it could generate significant heat.
  • Severity Spectrum: Corrosive materials can have a wide range of severity. Some cause immediate and severe damage while others have a weakening effect that becomes evident after some time.
  • Concentration Dependence: The strength of a corrosive material's effect is often related to its concentration. More concentrated solutions tend to be more destructive.
  • Incompatibility: Many corrosive materials react violently with certain other chemicals. Understanding these incompatible combinations is crucial for safe storage and handling.
  • Penetration: Some corrosives can penetrate deeply into materials or even through clothing, making them particularly hazardous.
  • Fumes and Vapors: Corrosive liquids and solids can release irritating or harmful fumes and vapors that can damage the respiratory system.

Types and Examples of Corrosive Chemicals

examples of corrosive chemicals - baking soda and ammonia

There are two main categories of corrosive chemicals: acids and bases. Let's list down some examples of these acids and bases:

Acids

  • Corrosive acids are generally characterized by a sour taste and a pH value lower than 7. In a litmus test, acids turn blue litmus paper red.
  • They are corrosive because they can add hydrogen ions (H+), which can break down the molecular structure of other materials.

Some common examples of acids include:

  • Sulfuric Acid (H2SO4): A strong mineral acid with many industrial uses. It is a dense, oily liquid that can cause severe burns.
  • Hydrochloric Acid (HCl): Another strong mineral acid, often used in cleaning solutions and metal pickling. It is a colorless liquid with a pungent odor.
  • Nitric Acid (HNO3): A strong mineral acid known for its oxidizing properties. It is a colorless liquid that can turn yellow with age and light exposure.
  • Citric Acid (C6H8O7): A weaker organic acid found in citrus fruits. It is a white crystalline solid that is used as an acidulant in food and beverages.

Bases

  • Bases, also known as alkalis, are generally characterized by a bitter taste with a pH greater than 7. These caustic materials turn red litmus paper blue.
  • They are corrosive because they can accept protons (H+), which similar to acids, can disrupt the structure of other materials.

Some common examples of bases include:

  • Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH): Also known as lye, this is a base chemical used in drain cleaners and soap making. It is a white crystalline solid that is highly soluble in water.
  • Potassium Hydroxide (KOH): Another strong base with similar properties and uses to sodium hydroxide
  • Sodium Carbonate (Na2CO3): Known as soda ash, it's a weak base used in glass production and water treatment. It is a white crystalline solid that is soluble in water.
  • Ammonia (NH3): A weak base that is a gas at room temperature. It has a strong, pungent odor and is irritating to the eyes and respiratory system.

Other Corrosive Materials

Other types of chemicals are corrosive although they may not be classified as acids or bases. These include:

  • Oxidizing agents such as hydrogen peroxide, which can readily release oxygen and cause fires or explosions.
  • Halogens such as chlorine and bromine, which are reactive elements that can damage tissues and materials.
  • Dehydrating agents such as sulfuric acid (mentioned earlier) and calcium oxide, which can remove water from materials and cause them to become brittle or crack.

Best Practices for Safely Storing Corrosive Chemicals

Storing corrosive chemicals safely requires following strict safety protocols to prevent accidents and maintain a secure environment.  

Segregation

  • Separate storage: Never store corrosive chemicals with incompatible materials. This includes storing acids away from bases, flammables away from oxidizers, and corrosives away from any chemicals that can react violently with them. Safety Data Sheets (SDS) will provide specific information on incompatible chemicals.
  • Store in designated areas: Corrosive chemicals should be stored in designated areas with cool, dry, and well-ventilated conditions. Avoid storing them in areas with high temperatures, direct sunlight, or excessive humidity.

Secondary Containment

  • Provide spill control: Store corrosive chemicals in secondary containment trays or pans to capture any leaks or spills. The material of the tray or pan should not corrode when exposed to the stored chemical.
  • Install curbs and dikes: For larger volumes of corrosive chemicals, construct curbs, dikes, or bunds around the storage area to prevent spills from spreading.

Container Integrity

  • Use proper containers: Use appropriate corrosion-resistant containers designed for the specific chemical being stored. For example, glass or plastic carboys may be suitable for some acids while metal containers might be appropriate for bases.
  • Do regular inspections: Inspect storage containers regularly for signs of damage, corrosion, or leaks. Replace damaged containers right away.

Proper Labeling and Signage

  • Use clear labels: Ensure all containers are clearly labeled with the chemical name, hazard pictograms, and any necessary safety information. Follow GHS (Globally Harmonized System) labeling standards.
  • Put warning signs: Post appropriate warning signs on the storage area door or entrance to identify the presence of corrosive chemicals and any specific hazards.

Safety Equipment

  • Provide an eye wash station and shower: Have a readily accessible eye wash station and safety shower in the vicinity of the storage area in case of accidental splashes or spills.
  • Wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Provide appropriate PPE such as gloves, safety glasses, and face shields for personnel who handle corrosive chemicals.

Safe Handling Techniques

  • Minimize transfers: Minimize the amount of corrosive material you transfer at one time. This reduces the risk of spills and makes handling easier.
  • Pour carefully: When pouring liquids, pour slowly and steadily down the side of the receiving container to avoid splashing.
  • Never add water to acid: Always remember to slowly add acid to water, not the other way around. Adding water to acid can cause a violent reaction with splatter.
  • Close containers properly: Always close containers tightly after use to prevent leaks and vapor release.

Additional Safety Measures

  • No eating or drinking: Avoid eating, drinking, or applying cosmetics while handling corrosive substances.
  • Wash hands thoroughly: Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling corrosive materials even if you wore gloves.
  • Be aware of your surroundings: Work in a clear and uncrowded area to avoid accidental contact with others.
  • Have an emergency spill response plan: Be familiar with the spill response procedures outlined in the SDS. Have appropriate spill clean-up materials readily available in the workspace.

Training and Procedures

  • Safety Training: Ensure all personnel who handle or store corrosive chemicals are properly trained on safety procedures including emergency spill response protocols, proper handling techniques, and first aid measures.
  • Written Procedures: Develop and maintain written procedures for the safe handling and storage of corrosive chemicals in your facility.

Handling Tanks and Cylinders that Hold Corrosive Gases

Some corrosive materials are in gaseous form. That means the gas must be stored in a tank or cylinder. Handling tanks and cylinders containing corrosive gases requires specific precautions due to the potential for leaks and exposure.

Preparation

  • Personal Protective Equipment: Always wear appropriate PPE  such as chemical-resistant gloves, safety glasses with side shields, and a respirator approved for the specific gas. The respirator should fit properly and has functioning filters.
  • Work Environment: Work in a well-ventilated area with good fume hood access. Use an enclosed system when transferring gas or working with the cylinder.
  • Pre-Inspection: Before handling the cylinder, inspect it visually for any signs of damage, leaks, corrosion, or loose valves. Do not use a damaged cylinder, and report any issues to a supervisor or qualified personnel.

Handling and Use

  • Secure Storage: Keep the cylinder valve closed and the safety cap secured when not in use. Store the cylinder upright. secure it with a chain or strap to prevent tipping.
  • Proper Tools: Only use the appropriate wrenches or tools provided by the gas supplier to open or close the cylinder valve. Never use pliers or other improvised tools.
  • Leak Detection: Use room-temperature soapy water solution to identify leaks around the valve area. If bubbles form, there's a chance that there's a leak. In case of a leak, close the cylinder valve if possible and evacuate the area. Inform a supervisor or qualified personnel immediately.
  • Cylinder Movement: Use a cylinder cart or hand truck designed for gas cylinders when moving them. Never lift, drag, or roll a cylinder.

Additional Safety Tips

  • Know the Gas: Be familiar with the properties and hazards of the specific gas in the cylinder by reviewing the Safety Data Sheet.
  • Never Refill Cylinders: Do not attempt to refill gas cylinders yourself. Leave this to certified professionals.
  • Decontamination Procedures: Have readily available spill kits or decontamination procedures in place for potential leaks or emergency spills.
  • Emergency Preparedness: Make sure everyone working with corrosive gases is aware of emergency procedures and evacuation routes.

Proper Disposal of Corrosive Chemicals

image of ACT truck

Handling corrosive chemicals safely is just the first step; knowing how to dispose of them correctly is equally important to prevent environmental and health hazards. 

General Steps

  • Segregate by Type: Keep acids and bases separate. Mixing them can result in violent reactions.
  • Disposing Down the Drain or Trash is a No-no: Corrosive chemicals should never be poured down the drain or disposed of in regular trash. This can damage pipes, harm sewage treatment processes, and pollute waterways.
  • Use Appropriate Containers: Store corrosive chemicals in designated disposal containers made from corrosion-resistant materials. Clearly label these containers with the chemical name, concentration, and hazard warnings.
  • Check Manufacturer Instructions: Follow the disposal recommendations provided on the SDS or by the chemical manufacturer. The SDS will often specify a recommended disposal method based on the specific chemical's properties.

Consider These Options

  • Specialized Disposal Companies: The best option is to hire a licensed hazardous waste disposal company such as ACTenviro for disposing of corrosive chemicals, especially larger quantities. These companies have the expertise, equipment, and permits to transport and dispose of the chemicals according to regulations safely.
  • Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) Programs: Many communities have Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) collection programs that accept certain corrosive chemicals from households for proper disposal. Check with your local municipality or waste management service to see if they offer such a program and what types of chemicals they accept. Some companies such as ACTenviro provide household hazardous waste disposal services.
  • Neutralization: In some instances, neutralization may be an option for specific corrosive chemicals. However, this should only be attempted by trained professionals who understand the chemical reactions involved. Never attempt to neutralize a corrosive chemical without proper training and authorization.

Important Points to Remember

  • Safety First: Always prioritize safety when disposing of corrosive chemicals. Wear the appropriate PPE, and follow recommended procedures to avoid exposure or accidents.
  • Labeling is Key: Make sure all containers holding corrosive waste are clearly labeled with the chemical name and hazard pictograms.
  • Maintain Proper Documentation: Keep thorough records of the disposal process. Document the type and quantity of chemicals, disposal dates, and methods used. This not only ensures compliance with legal requirements but also maintains transparency and accountability in your facility's waste management practices.
  • Regulations Apply: Disposal of corrosive chemicals may be subject to local, state, or federal regulations. It's important to be familiar with the relevant regulations in your area.  

Dealing With Emergency Spills That Involve Corrosive Chemicals

Accidental spills that involve corrosive chemicals are serious and dangerous. Reacting promptly and safely is essential in an emergency spill involving corrosive chemicals. 

Immediate Actions

  1. Evacuate the Area: Alert everyone in the vicinity of the spill and evacuate the area immediately.
  2. Activate the Alarm: Trigger any alarms or emergency response systems in your facility to alert others and summon help.

Emergency Response

  1. Call Emergency Services: In case of a major spill, serious injury, or any doubt about your ability to handle the situation safely, immediately call emergency services (e.g., fire department or hazmat team) for assistance. Hazardous waste providers such as ACTenviro can also provide emergency response services.  Provide details about the spilled chemical, the extent of the spill, and any injuries.
  2. Do Not Attempt Cleanup Alone: Never attempt to clean up a large or serious corrosive chemical spill by yourself. Wait for trained professionals to arrive and handle the situation.

Additional Safety Measures 

  1. Turn off Equipment: If possible, shut down any machinery or processes that could worsen the spill or create additional hazards.
  2. Ventilation: If the spill is indoors, open windows and doors to promote ventilation and remove harmful fumes. 

General Precautions

  • Never use water on unknown chemicals: Water can react violently with some corrosive chemicals. Always refer to the SDS for proper neutralization procedures.
  • Avoid Contact: Do not touch the spilled material or breathe in any fumes. Maintain a safe distance until the spill is cleaned up by professionals.
  • Await Instructions: Follow any instructions provided by emergency responders or supervisors on the scene.

Who Enforces Regulations for Managing Corrosive Chemicals?

In the US, two main agencies oversee regulations regarding corrosive substances:

  1. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) focuses on worker safety and ensures chemical hazards are properly communicated in the workplace. This includes:
    • Classification of hazardous chemicals, including corrosives, based on specific criteria
    • Requiring Safety Data Sheets to be readily available for workers
    • Standardizing labeling of hazardous chemicals, including the use of GHS pictograms for corrosives
    • Mandating worker training on the HCS and how to handle hazardous chemicals safely, including corrosives
  2. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): The EPA's Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) focuses on the proper management of hazardous waste including corrosive chemicals. This includes:
    • Identifying and classifying hazardous waste, which may include certain corrosive chemicals
    • Establishing guidelines for safe storage, transportation, and disposal of hazardous waste
    • Regulating hazardous waste treatment and disposal facilities
  3. Globally Harmonized System (GHS)
    • The GHS is an international system that provides a standardized approach to classifying and labeling hazardous chemicals.
    • GHS pictograms and hazard statements help communicate the dangers of corrosive chemicals on labels and Safety Data Sheets.

Conclusion

Corrosive chemicals, while powerful substances, demand respect. Managing corrosive chemicals effectively relies on proper storage, careful handling, and responsible disposal. Make sure you use appropriate equipment and safety measures, such as well-ventilated storage areas, clear labeling, and certified disposal services. Always adhere to regulatory guidelines which is essential to maintain safety. Regularly review and update your safety procedures to protect both people and property.

We hope that this comprehensive guide will give you a glimpse of the dangers of using them as well as safety protocols on how to mitigate that danger when handling them.

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