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Safety Data Sheets

Information that
Could Save Your Life
By Brian Rohrig

ON SEPTEMBER 15, 2014, a high school chemistry teacher in Colorado intended to dem-
Understanding the
onstrate the characteristic emission spectra of metal ions with a flame test large enough for the hazards of chemicals
entire classroom to watch. The different colored flames produce the so-called rainbow effect, If you ever read the labels of chemical prod-
which would certainly impress the students. Unfortunately, in this instance, four students were ucts, you may have noticed a lot of symbols.
injured. All four suffered burns, one seriously. The use of these symbols is a direct result
of recent efforts to modernize and standard-
Methanol flame tests When conducting a flame ize the way chemicals’ potential hazards
are typically performed test, soaking wooden are labeled. One update is the adoption of a
splints in salt solutions
by placing 5 to 7 grams and then placing the uniform set of pictograms developed by the
of a metal chloride in a splints in a Bunsen burner United Nations, which is used throughout
glass Petri dish and then is considered a safer the world. Quiz yourself on p. 6 to see
alternative than working
adding 7 to 10 milliliters directly with flammable if you can match these symbols with
(mL) of methanol. After liquids, such as methanol, their warnings.
turning down the lights, which is not recommended An SDS meets the requirements of the
the instructor lights the Occupational Safety and Health Administra-
mixture, and the class tion (OSHA), a U.S. federal agency created
observes the flame test color. But demonstra- Could these accidents have been pre- to ensure a safe work environment for all
tors are cautioned not to add more methanol vented? Where can teachers (and students) employees. OSHA mandates that all workers

to the Petri dish after starting the demonstra- find the type of information needed to use exposed to chemicals have the right to know
tion—the mistake this teacher made. chemicals in a safe and responsible fashion? about the potential hazards of these chemicals.
The flame quickly traveled back up into the Fortunately, there is a system in place to pro-
bottle and ignited the rest of the methanol. Pres- vide ready access to this type of information.
sure built up within the bottle, as the temperature Every chemical has its own Safety Data
of the gases produced in this chemical reaction Sheet (SDS), formerly known as a Material
quickly increased, and the bottle spewed a fiery Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), containing a
stream of methanol at a distance of 12 feet (3.6 wealth of information in a simple, easy-to-read
meters), hitting a student in the chest. format. Especially prominent
In September and October 2014, a total within each SDS are safety
of 22 students and two adults were injured precautions needed to han-
throughout the United States in four separate dle the chemical properly,
incidents involving methanol used in rainbow as well as any potential
demonstrations. health hazards.

ChemMatters | DECEMBER 2015/JANUARY 2016 5

“Hazards Identification.” A typical listing for methanol under
a b c this section may read as shown below (see “Highlights from
‘Section 2: Hazards Identification’ ”).
By reading the information contained in the SDS, the highly flammable
nature of methanol is revealed. It is so flammable that there is a direct
warning to avoid open flames and even sparks.
Although the label says that both the liquid and vapor are flammable,
the liquid itself does not actually burn. When a liquid is ignited, it is the
vapors on top of the liquid that burn. For a liquid to be considered flam-
d e f
mable, it needs to evaporate quickly so that enough vapors can form
above the surface of the liquid to support combustion. It is these vapors
that will ignite, if enough heat is applied.
Many accidents involving
methanol occur because it is
poured onto an open flame. Highlights from
"Section 5:
The same precaution against Fire-Fighting Mea
g h i pouring any substance onto Ü Highly flammable
liquid and vapor
an open flame should be fol- Ü Sealed containers
exposed to
lowed. excessive heat ma
y explode
Even though most people Ü Vapors may travel
back to ignition
should know better than
Ü Flame may be inv
to pour a flammable liquid isible during the da
Ü Use dry chemical, y
onto an open flame, some- CO2, or foam to
times even trained profes- Ü Avoid using water
1. Gases under pressure____ 7. Environmental toxicity________ to extinguish—
sionals make this mistake water may not co
2. Explosive________ 8. Flammable________ ol the fire to a tem
perature below -
with methanol, with disas- methanol’s flash po
3. Irritant________ 9. Carcinogen, reproductive or Ü Water will cause fire int.
trous consequences. to spread if not
4. Acute toxicity (severe)______ organ toxicity, or respiratory contained.
Read through section Ü Water and methano
5. Corrosive________ sensitizer________ l mixtures still
5 of the SDS (see flammable at co
6. Oxidizer________ (Answers on p. 7) ncentrations abov
“Highlights from 20% methanol e
‘Section 5: Fire-Fight-
ing Measures’ ” on the
Although OSHA regulations apply only to workers, state laws typically right) to see if you can figure out why this mistake
extend similar protections to students. So when your teacher orders may occur.
chemicals for the lab, each chemical will come shipped with an SDS, Because methanol burns with a clear, clean flame, it is often difficult to
either in written or electronic form. Having an SDS on hand for each see this flame in the daytime. As stated in the SDS, the flame may appear
chemical you use in the lab is not just a good idea—it’s the law. invisible during the day. If you are performing a demonstration where a
The SDS for any chemical is written by the supplier or manufac- methanol flame is produced and then the flame dies down, you might be
turer of that chemical. There is a great deal of motivation for these tempted to add more methanol, thinking that the fire has gone out. This
companies to be thorough and accurate, as any incomplete or false could be a tragic mistake.
information could lead to serious harm by the user, not to mention
a lawsuit. But an SDS does not address the pos- Flash point and autoignition
sible hazards that could occur as a
tion 2: temperature
chemical reaction moves forward
t s f ro m "Sec
h n"
and the constituents and concen- Highlig ificatio Methanol does not have to be poured directly onto a flame
a z a rd s Ident to produce unintended results. On September 3, 2014, a
trations of the chemicals involved H
change. R vapor demonstrator at a science museum in Reno, Nev., attempted
DANGE able liq
uid and
amm open to conduct a flame tornado demonstration on a rotating plat-
Highly fl sparks,
fro m heat, ing form that makes a vortex composed of flames. He poured
Using methanol Ü Keep aw
t s u rfaces. - N
o smok
ith some additional methanol onto cotton balls in a dish after
s, h o w
safely flame contact
s w a llo wed, in the flames had apparently gone out, but the cotton balls
Ü Toxic if
Let’s look at an example of an SDS r if inha were still smoldering and instantly re-ignited when the
skin o to organ

for methanol and see if it contains au s es damage to ols methanol was added. The flame traveled up into the
Ü C parkin g
information that could have helped to U s e o n ly non-s ea sures bottle (as described in the SDS), spraying the flaming
Ü ti onary m
prevent the tragedies described above. ca u liquid into the audience. Thirteen people were injured,
Take pre e
Ü discharg
Section 2 of the SDS is labeled a g ain st static mostly children.

6 ChemMatters | DECEMBER 2015/JANUARY 2016

How is it possible to ignite methanol without an actual
flame? To answer that question, we need to look at In case of a lab fire

Section 9 of the SDS for methanol (see “Highlights
f a fire occurs in a lab, it is important to know that different types
from ‘Section 9: Physical Data’ ” below).
of fire extinguishers are used for different types of fires. In the
If you examine the data above (which is only a small portion
United States, fires are classified depending on the materials
of what is contained in the SDS for this section), you will notice
that catch fire. Methanol combustion is an example of a Class B fire.
the terms “flash point” and “autoignition temperature.” The
Most classroom
flash point is the temperature at which the vapors above a liq-
fire extinguishers Classes Picture
uid ignite if an outside ignition source, such as a spark or flame, Types of Fires Symbol
of Fires
should be able to
comes near.
extinguish this kind
For example, if a beaker of methanol is at a temperature Wood, paper, cloth, trash
& other ordinary liquids.
of fire, but to make
below its flash point, you cannot set it afire, even if you put an
sure, read the label
open flame to it. So, at 10 °C and below, methanol will not catch
on the fire extin-
on fire. But once it reaches 11 °C—its flash point—you can set Gasoline, oil, paint and
other flammable liquids.
it on fire if you light it.
As a liquid warms, the aver-

May be used on fires
age kinetic energy of its molecules Highlig involving live electrical
hts from equipment without
increases. Because more molecules Physica "Sectio
l Data" n 9: danger to the operator.

have enough kinetic energy to escape Ü

point: -9
the attractive forces holding them 7.8 °C Combustible metals

together in the liquid phase, its

Ü Freezing
po int: -97.6 °C
and combustible metal
Ü Boiling
point: 64
evaporation rate increases, produc- Ü Flash po .7 °C
int: 11 °C
ing more vapor. The flash point Ü Auto-ign
ition tem
occurs when a sufficient concen- perature
: 464 °C
tration of vapor has accumulated class is relatively small, and of the accidents that occur, most are
above the liquid, which, in com- relatively minor.
bination with oxygen, will burn if The number of students injured in science labs is smaller than
ignited. Remember: Only vapors burn, those injured in sports. This good safety record is due to science
not liquids. teachers being vigilant about enforcing safety rules in the laboratory. So,
When the flash point is reached, the vapors the next time your chemistry teacher tells you to put your goggles on,
will ignite, but the fire will not be sustained, make sure you comply, as he or she is only looking out for your safety.
because there is not enough vapor present to While every accident in the chemistry lab cannot be avoided, the
sustain combustion. This ignition is still very recent incidents with methanol likely could have been avoided, had the
dangerous, as a quick burst of flame can pro- experimenters familiarized themselves with the safety information con-
duce severe burns, and if other combustible tained in an SDS. Anytime chemicals are used in the laboratory, there
substances are nearby, they can also catch on fire. are risks involved, but these risks can be minimized by understanding
A more useful value is the fire point, which is the point at which a the chemicals used in an experiment. It is often said that a little knowl-
flammable liquid will not only catch on fire if lit but will also keep burn- edge is a dangerous thing, but when it comes to chemicals, a little
ing for five seconds. The fire point is typically only a few degrees higher knowledge can save your life!
than the flash point.
If methanol is at or above its fire point, it will continue to burn when
lit. Under most laboratory conditions, methanol will be above its fire SELECTED REFERENCES
point, so when lit, it will continue to burn. Although the fire point is not Tinnesand, M. Material Safety Data Sheets: Passports to Safety? ChemMatters,
Oct 2006, pp 18–19.
included on the SDS, it is important to know how it differs from the
The ANSI Standardized MSDS Format. Ben Meadows Tech Facts, Document No.
flash point. 250:
The autoignition temperature is the temperature at which a sub- format_250.pdf [accessed Sept 2015].
stance will burst into flames without an outside ignition source, such History of the MSDS. James R. Macdonald Laboratory, July 14, 2009: [accessed Sept 2015].
as a spark or a flame. At the autoignition temperature, spontaneous
Improving Chemistry Demonstration Safety. Chemical & Engineering News,
combustion occurs. According to the SDS for methanol, the autoigni- Nov 17, 2014:
tion temperature is 464 °C. So, when the methanol was poured onto the Demonstration-Safety.html [accessed Sept 2015].
smoldering cotton balls, if they were at a temperature above 464 °C, the
methanol would instantly burst into flames on contact. Substances do Brian Rohrig is a science writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio. His most recent
ChemMatters article, “Eating with Your Eyes: The Chemistry of Food Colorings,”
not need flames to catch on fire—they only need a sufficient amount of
appeared in the October/November 2015 issue.
heat along with air.

Considering the number of students who take high school chemistry,

Answers to quiz on p. 6: 1. e, 2. c, 3. g, 4. i, 5. d, 6. a, 7.f, 8. b, 9. h
the number of students who were involved in accidents in a chemistry

ChemMatters | DECEMBER 2015/JANUARY 2016 7