I hereby admit that it was ages ago since I even looked at a MSDS, and I presume I am not the only one. Why? It is certainly not because I do not care about the safety of myself or others, because I really do, but because these so called documents are – in the best of worlds – worthless.

I suppose you already know what I am talking about? If not, be my guest: The safety instructions for sodium chloride

We can chuckle at things like “taste: saline”, “if ingested, seek medical advice immediately” or “protective equipment: gloves, lab coat, dust respirator”, but seriously – it is not funny.

These documents are so bloated that we have become blind to whatever they contain. In the case of table salt, this is perhaps not a big deal, but what about the reagents that are dangerous for real? (cf. The Boy Who Cried Wolf)

Active synthesis chemists handle new chemical entities on a daily basis. It would have been nice if we had had access to a reliable source of information regarding the actual precautions needed for each of these rather than a generic “treat everything like you would handle refined Ebola virus.”

Is there a way out of this mess?


11 Responses to Material Safety Data Sheets – Who the hell is responsible for their utter uselessness?

  1. gmonindc says:

    I don’t think the MSDS is really for the end-user as much as it is for shipping purposes. It the shipper were to spill the chemical it does give rough instructions for treating the spill.

    For example, a large spill of sodium chloride could cause health problem for the people cleaning up the mess. And yes, sodium chloride dust can cause problems for people cleaning up the mess.

    As for the end-user, the MSDS does provide the contents of the shipment even if it is a mixed composition. At this point a responsible user will seek other sources for proper usage and safety procedures. I would never rely on a MSDS for proper safety instructions.

    • Sean says:

      Great point about shipping. A MSDS can be worth examining if your chemical provider charges shipping once the item has been shipped (which is horrible).

      Section 14 of a MSDS will let you know if the material is HAZMAT and therefore would have an increased shipping fee assuming it wasn’t included in the original price.

  2. Brian D'Amico says:

    MSDSs are the most worthless documents in any setting, and their contents exemplify the way our society reacts when they hear such words as “chemical”.

    All an MSDS really tells you about every single material is that that specific thing is most likely hazardous to your health and you should probably best avoid it, whether or not the product actually posses any real health risks to you.

    Your salt example is a great one, but I find my favorite MSDSs to be the ones for some hand soaps and hand sanitizers that read under first aid for skin contact “Wash affected areas with soap and water and seek medical attention”.

    How can you wash your hands with soap if you need to then wash your hands with soap because the soap touched the skin on your hand?

    • Michael C. Fitzgerald says:

      I agree they appear pointless (they are about as useful as a social security card), however, in our litigious society they are a must. I work for a consumer products company where traceability is absolutely key. Although they don’t say much about a given raw material, when the FDA comes knocking and asks how you know what’s in that barrel, handing them the manufacturer’s MSDS (although more apropos would be a C of A) will keep them at bay.

      • Yes, the MSDS makes a great tool for CYA’ing. My lab has a huge book devoted to these documents, but in every instance where we work with a truly dangerous chemical (based on our own working knowledge, not the MSDS), I have a protocol in place for proper handling.

  3. milkshake says:

    I have seen MSDS document for pure diazomethane. It said it was an flammable highly toxic gas, sure enough. No mentioning of its high explosivity. It then continued that the material is liquid when compressed in a cylinder tank and operator has to watch for frostbite when releasing the tank content – utter bullshit. The dude who wrote this stuff was clueless. He was probably asked to do a bunch of MSDS documents. So he looked up diazomethane boiling point and winged it.

    I think the primary role of the MSDS documents is to shield someone from a lawsuit. I once found a MSDS document that declared benzaldehyde to be high neurotoxicity hazard (its use in cherry cola and almond-flavored pastry notwithstanding.)

  4. CatalysisAlex says:

    Everytime I really need(ed) some info on a chemical, I just google(d) it…..

  5. maddie273 says:

    Well, I tried to make MSDS more exciting by writing folks songs with them prominently featured, Witness The HAZCOM Song https://bit.ly/e88T9g and The WHMIS Warble https://bit.ly/hInu8i

  6. Baltic says:

    MSDS are worthless, if your goal is to find important information on proper handling and possible health risks of a certain material. Which, ironically, is usually advertised as the whole point of these documents. In reality, the term “Cover Your Ass Paper” is as accurate as it gets.
    They can be particularly misleading if one were to use them to compare health risks of various chemicals (let’s forget the dire warnings for harmless materials for a moment – some extra caution is less likely to cause harm than not enough caution).
    For example, everyone in organics lab probably has used chloroform. Hell, everyone has probably smelled it (therefore, inhaled the vapors) and survived the experience. It’s not healthy at all, but it’s not exactly an emergency.
    MSDS says: “Inhalation: May cause liver and kidney damage. May cause cardiac sensitization and possible failure. Exposure produces central nervous system depression. Inhalation of large amounts may cause respiratory stimulation, followed by respiratory depression, convulsions and possible death due to respiratory paralysis. Causes irritation of the mucous membrane and upper respiratory tract. Harmful effects on the liver and kidneys, and some deaths, have been reported from historical use of chloroform as an anesthetic agent, at concentrations between 8000 and 20000 ppm.”
    OK. And now there’s another chemical. As for inhalation hazards, from MSDS: “CNS-disturbances with nausea, headache, dizziness, and coma. May be irritating to the respiratory system”.
    Is it more harmful than chloroform? Less so? About the same? It’s really difficult to tell. On one hand, coma sounds pretty damn unpleasant, on the other hand, no mentions of possible death… If I didn’t know the chemical in question, I’d say it sounds less harmful than chloroform. Which I believe TMS-diazomethane certainly isn’t.

  7. buches says:

    I can understand why experimental chemists are annoyed about MSDS. For a person doing synthesis on a routine basis MSDSs are almost useless, except for an emergency when they may give a piece of instruction in the midst of a hassle.

    Although one one occasion I found them useful – I’ve been teaching one reaction to a non-chemist (physics student).
    And the person had no clue about relative toxicity or potential hazard of chemicals employed (e.g. what’s the difference if you spill tributylphosphine or octadecene in air). Obvs I explained what is what, but giving a person MSDS was a good idea – the guy read and got a feeling of what is more dangerous and what is less.

    “Is there a way out of this mess?”

    A rough idea: imagine a MSDS-pedia, like wiki, where in addition to the info of standard MSDS (and as earlier comments suggest it is not so useless) active synthesis chemists (and whoever else relevant) add their notes on the peculiarities of compound and hidden risks of handling and using it etc. and share experience of the emergency or poisoning cases in the lab/industry and how these were handled.

  8. Robert Samples says:

    I love how ethanol has a higher health hazard rating than methanol and isopropanol on the safety diamond

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