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Cleaning Toxic Substance Spillage

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 22 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Toxic Spills Hazardous Waste Cleaning

When you think of toxic spills, you probably only think of industrial manufacturers of things like pesticides, pharmaceuticals and plastics but in fact, our homes contain a wide range of potentially toxic or hazardous chemicals – in our kitchen cupboards, on our bathroom shelves, in the utility rooms and in our garages. Sadly, our quest for convenience, less effort and time-economy has led to us using an increasing number of toxic chemicals in our daily lives to clean and maintain our homes. And any accident with these chemicals can pose a serious threat to the health of you and your family. Therefore, it is important to be prepared and know what to do in the case of a spillage.

Be Prepared

First, make sure you are aware of all the potentially toxic substances in your household – check all products for labels with “CAUTION," "WARNING" or "DANGER" - the first is usually an indication of lower toxicity whereas the last warns of the highest level of toxicity. Some common products which may be dangerous include oven cleaners, scouring powders, drain cleaners, silver polish, paint removers, wood floor wax and beach. Ensure that you know where they are kept and how dangerous they are. For example, are they corrosive? Can they be inhaled? Should they be kept at certain temperatures? Are they flammable? Are they particularly reactive with certain other substances or liquids? Here are some common household chemicals and their potentially dangerous properties:

Kitchen

  • Cleansers (reactive)
  • Detergents (reactive)
  • Cooking oil (flammable)
  • Aerosols (explosive in fire)

Bathroom

  • Aerosols (explosive in fire)
  • Alcohol (flammable)
  • Nail polish remover (flammable)
  • Medicines (see label)

Bedrooms

  • Aerosols (explosive in fire)
  • Medicines (see label)

Garage

  • Petrol (toxic, flammable)
  • Antifreeze (toxic, flammable)
  • Brake fluid (toxic, flammable)
  • Transmission fluid (toxic, flammable)
  • Oil (flammable)
  • Paints (toxic)
  • Paint thinner (toxic, flammable)
  • Adhesives (toxic, flammable)

Laundry Room

  • Detergents (reactive)
  • Cleansers (reactive)
  • Bleach (reactive)

Gardening

  • Pesticides (toxic, reactive)
  • Fertilisers (toxic, reactive, most flammable or explosive when mixed with petrol)

Practise Good Management

Make sure you follow some general rules when handling toxic household products – for example, always try to choose the least toxic product you can manage with and buy only as much as you will use, so that you do not keep a store of lethal chemicals. Make sure that you read the label and follow the given instructions for use and storage, as well as safe disposal. In general, it is a good idea to store corrosive products and flammable products in separate locations and to keep herbicides and pesticides away from a heat source. Naturally, keep all hazardous materials locked out of the reach of children and pets.

Keep the chemicals in their original containers – do not transfer or decant into other containers, especially any which may hold food or drink. In addition, make sure that the containers are clearly labelled so that everyone is aware of its toxic contents. Keep a regular check of the bottle and containers to make sure that they have not deteriorated and are not leaking. And most importantly, make sure the lids and caps are securely sealed so that spills cannot occur if the container is accidentally knocked over.

If you live in an area prone to flood or earthquakes – or just for protection in the event of a fire – prevent toxic spills by checking that all shelves where materials are stored are securely fastened and make sure reactive products cannot be knocked against each other.

How to Handle a Toxic Spill

If you are at all unsure of what to do or the spill is very large and too difficult to contain, call the emergency services immediately and ask for help.

  • Try to keep the spill from spreading by setting up barriers, although make sure that these are made of materials which are inert to the spilled substance.
  • Keep children and pets away from the spill area
  • Check the label for instructions about contact and make sure that you wear protective clothing and footwear.
  • Don’t just try to flush the spill away using the garden hose – this may spread the toxic material even further and contaminate an even greater area. The best thing is to soak up as much as possible using absorbent material such as paper towels, old rags or cat litter.
  • If the spill is powder, try to limit air movement in the area, especially during your attempts to sweep up the spilled substance.
  • Scoop or sweep up as much material/liquid as possible into a plastic bag and also include any contaminated gravel or soil, plus any absorbent material used.
  • Scrub the area with plain water and detergent – use lots of water to rinse until all traces of the chemicals have been removed.
  • Place all contaminated items which cannot be thoroughly washed clean into the plastic bag; then double bag it again, seal and label. Dispose of this safely according to the instructions on the label.
  • Don’t forget to monitor all pets and even children for any signs of illness which may be associated with the toxic chemical.

Prevention is Best

The best way to reduce the dangers of toxic spills is to reduce the number of dangerous products in your home and to substitute safer alternatives. These are often “natural products” such as lemon juice, baking soda and vinegar, which are not only safer for you but also safer for the environment. Remember also that a regular cleaning routine will mean less stubborn ingrained dirt and stains, which require aggressive chemicals to remove them.

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