Have you heard of isocyanates?
Isocyanates are a family of highly reactive, low molecular weight chemicals. Usually they are used when manufacturing flexible and rigid foams, fibers, paints and varnishes and elastomers. Isocyanates are found increasingly in the automobile industry as well as auto body repair and building insulation materials. Spray-on products used in retail, commercial or industrial settings often contain isocyanates that are used to protect cement, wood, fibreglass, aluminum and steel. These protective coatings are found on many day-to-day products such as trailers, boats, foundations, decks, truck beds and other vehicle parts.
The most widely used compounds are diisocyanates, which contain two isocyanate groups, and polyisocyanates, which are usually derived from diisocyanates and may contain several isocyanate groups. The most commonly used diisocyanates include methylenebis (phenyl isocyanate) (MDI), toluene diisocyanate (TDI), and hexamethylene diisocyanate (HDI).
Why does it matter?
Isocyanates are very powerful irritants to mucous membranes that they come in contact with such as the eyes, mouth and nose, as well as gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts. The effects of isocyanates on the skin can be seen almost immediately as marked inflammation. One of the most risky effects of isocyanates is when multiple cases of exposure take place over time. It has been reported that workers who have been subject to these types of chemicals are subject to severe asthma attacks, leading to death in specific instances. There is evidence that both respiratory and dermal exposures can lead to sensitization.
It is the responsibility of both the employer and the employee to ensure that environmental conditions are always safe and secure. Make sure you are aware if your work environment is susceptible to isocyanates. Nearly every manufacturing business that requires a coating to be applied to its products (whether it is paint, powder, or another application) is at some degree of risk.
Preventing exposure to isocyanates is a critical step in eliminating the health hazard all together. Engineering controls such as closed air quality control systems, air filtration and ventilation, creating a cleanroom environment, should be the principal method for minimizing isocyanate exposure in the workplace.
Other controls, such as worker isolation and use of personal protective equipment such as respirators and personal protective clothing to prevent dermal exposures may also be necessary. Early recognition of sensitization and prompt and strict elimination of exposures is essential to reduce the risk of long-term or permanent respiratory problems for workers who have become sensitized.