Chemical Spills

Immediately alert all other people in the laboratory and attend to any injuries.

In the event materials are splashed in the eyes, go immediately to the eye wash station and rinse the eyes with large amounts of water for at least 15 minutes. Immediate, thorough washing of your eyes with water may save your vision in the event of an accident. After a complete washing, you should be taken to the emergency room for an eye examination (see Medical Procedures).

Use the Safety Showers when large areas of the body are exposed to hazardous chemicals during a spill or accident. Quickly remove all contaminated clothing while using the safety shower. Remove all clothing below the affected area and minimize further contact with the chemical by cutting away the clothing if necessary. It is especially important not to pull contaminated clothing over the face or eyes. Seconds count, and no time should be wasted because of modesty. Immediately flood the affected body area in cold water for at least 15 minutes. Resume if pain returns. Wash off chemicals with a mild detergent and water but do not use neutralizing chemicals, unguents, creams, lotions or salves. Get medical attention as soon as possible (see Medical Procedures). Clothes must be laundered separately before reuse.

Your instructor should make certain that paramedics, physicians or nurses understand exactly what chemicals are involved. This should be ensured by sending a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) regarding the chemical involved in the spill with the patient. The exact chemical name should be supplied. For example, exposure to hydrochloric acid is very different medically than exposure to hydrofluoric acid, yet both are sometimes simply called "acids".

Spills involving hazardous materials should be contained and treated as instructed on the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).
For large volume spills, evacuate the area and contact the Environmental Health & Safety Department, x4444, for aid in cleanup and disposal of contaminated materials. Do not risk anyone's health to clean up a spill. Trained personnel are available through EH&S.
Small spills may be contained and adsorbed using appropriate commercial adsorbents if a respiratory hazard does not exist. Dispose of the recovered materials and waste through EH&S.

If a volatile, flammable or toxic material is spilled, immediately warn everyone to extinguish flames and turn off spark-producing equipment such as brush-type motors. Shut down all equipment and vacate the room until it is decontaminated. The Environmental Health & Safety Department will be responsible for designating the proper cleanup procedure.

The following substances are very hazardous and clean up should be handled by experienced personnel only:

  • aromatic amines
  • nitro compounds
  • organic halides
  • bromine
  • carbon disulfide
  • ethers
  • cyanides
  • hydrazines
  • nitriles

Avoid skin contact and, to prevent inhalation, wear appropriate breathing apparatus.

If the spill presents no fire hazard and the material is not particularly volatile or toxic, cleanup is directed by the volume and state of material. To facilitate cleaning up liquids, use sorbent material which will neutralize the liquids if possible (trisodium phosphate or sand followed by sodium bicarbonate solution or powder for acids, sodium thiosulfate solution for bromine). Commercial sorbents (e.g., Oil-Dri, Zorb-All or Spill-X) of small particles (about 30 mesh) or other satisfactory clay absorbents are also recommended. (Dry sand can also be used, but it is less effective.) A dustpan and brush should be used and appropriate gloves should be worn. While wearing gloves, clean the contaminated area with soap and water and mop it dry. If the spill is on the floor, some absorbent should be sprinkled on the spot to prevent slipping. (Vermiculite may create a slipping hazard when wet.) Dispose of the residue through EH&S.

For acid chloride spills, use calcined absorbent products, such as Oil- Dri, Zorb-All or dry sand. Avoid contact with skin.

Spilled mercury should be immediately and thoroughly cleaned up by using a trapped vacuum line attached to a tapered glass tube similar to a medicine dropper. (Mercury Spill Kits are available from the Environmental Health & Safety Department.) Domestic vacuum cleaners must not be used since they will only re-disperse mercury aerosols and increase the contamination. Cover small droplets in accessible spots with sodium polysulfide solution or powdered sulfur to convert the mercury to its sulfide. Mercury vapors are poisonous so care should be used to clean up all mercury, especially any near a source of heat.

A spill of an alkali metal should be smothered with powdered graphite or Metal-X extinguisher and removed to a safe location where it can be disposed of by reaction with a dry secondary alcohol. Particles of alkali metal splattered on the skin should be rapidly removed and the skin flushed quickly with water. If any metal on the skin becomes ignited, deluge it with cold water immediately.

Most small liquid spills (<100 ml) can be absorbed with paper towels, sand or an absorbent. Most solid spills can be brushed up and disposed of in solid waste containers, but care must be exercised to avoid mixtures of reactive combinations.

A spill of white phosphorus should be blanketed with wet sand or wet absorbent and disposed of by controlled burning outdoors. If any white phosphorus is splattered on the skin, flush the skin with cold water and remove adhering phosphorus. Copper sulfate solution provides a visual aid in removing particles because it produces a dark color in contact with phosphorus.

Non-hazardous solution spills involving water, saline solutions or dilute biological buffer solutions may be cleaned up with sponges and mops. The custodial staff may aid in these cleanups.

You should prepare for a spill before it occurs by stocking appropriate spill cleanup kits in your laboratory. Absorbent pillows and barricade tape are available from the Environmental Health & Safety Department, x4444.