About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« Blowups Happen | Main | Surfin' On The Surface »

May 26, 2009

On the Uselessness of the MSDS

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

With all the recent discussions around here about safety, I think that there's one thing that all of us working chemists can agree on: MSDSs are often the next thing to useless.

They're not supposed to be, at least in theory. The idea is that a materials safety data sheet collects all the relevant toxicity, handling, and disposal information for a given chemical so it can be referenced by users, emergency responders, and so on. But somewhere along the line, things have gone well off track. I refer interested readers to the famous example of the MSDS for sand. Sea sand.

The first thing we find is that it is a cancer hazard. Then we note that "Prolonged exposure to respirable crystalline quartz may cause delayed lung injury/fibrosis (silicosis)". Which is true, but (of course), we have no idea of what "prolonged" means in this context, and we may not realize that sand, in its commonly encountered forms, is not easy to inhale. One should " Wear appropriate protective clothing to prevent skin exposure", but if we were to contact this substance through our own carelessness? We should "Immediately flush skin with plenty of water for at least 15 minutes while removing contaminated clothing and shoes.". We should take care at all times: "Do not let this chemical enter the environment." But that should go without saying, since we've been enjoined to "Use only in a chemical fume hood".

Now, what this thing is trying to tell us is that extensive exposure to finely ground silica dust is bad for the lungs. This is absolutely true, even if lawyers have been trying to make dubious fortunes off of it. A person should take care not to inhale sand dust, and should take particular care if exposure to such dust is a regular feature of one's job.

But there needs to be a way to get this information across without making a bag of sand sound like a weapon of mass destruction. I don't know how many times I've heard of chemical spills being treated like high-level radioactive waste because emergency responders (or local news reporters) read the MSDS and hit the panic button. (A famous example was the closure of the Bay Bridge in California once by a few bags of iron oxide (keep in mind that this happened before the current environment of worries about terrorist incidents). The responders knew what the chemical was: they read the MSDS, which (naturally) told them to wear full protective equipment, avoid exposure, wash copiously and seek medical attention, etc. For a few bags of rust.

There has to be a better way - you'd think, at any rate. But the MSDS is lawyer language, when you get right down to it, and there's the problem. Trying to insulate everyone from liability is not something that can be done simultaneously with trying to inform people in case of an emergency. Very few chemists, in my experience, spend much time with these forms at all, preferring to get their information from almost any other source. There has to be a better way.

Comments (79) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Safety Warnings


1. Anonymous on May 26, 2009 11:55 AM writes...

I've always been curious how the LD50 for water was estimated? By drowning rats, maybe?

Permalink to Comment

2. retread on May 26, 2009 12:17 PM writes...

Exactly the same thing has happened with the PDR (Physician's Desk Reference) which is essentially a compendium of drug companies' warnings about product toxicity and side effects. In an effort to maximize CYA every possible side effect is listed (ranging from hemorrhoids to dyspareunia).

The result is that when information is needed about a relatively unfamiliar drug (docs shouldn't be prescribing drugs unfamiliar to them, but patients appear before them who are taking such from another doc) you just call someone using the drug after reading the PDR to find out what really happens.

Permalink to Comment

3. Ty on May 26, 2009 12:23 PM writes...

Once, I saw on the label of D2O; "Strong oxidizer" umm.... ok

Permalink to Comment

4. milkshake on May 26, 2009 12:24 PM writes...

Its not just the cover-my-ass overblown formulaic nonsense obscuring the important info. The main problem is that the relevant info is often completely missing.

After interacting with people from E&HS department at three companies and three academic institutions, I suppose that the people who actually are writing all this MSDS gorp are neither sensible, motivated nor brilliant scientists - because any half-decent chemist would have fled from this kind of assignment that is injurious to sanity.

Permalink to Comment

5. KC on May 26, 2009 12:29 PM writes...

On the opposite side, MSDSs are better than where a lot of people get their information from: rumour and hearsay. Biologists live in morbid fear of ethidium bromide, switching to even more dangerous dyes to avoid it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I know of at least one instance where someone all but fumigated themselves with TEMED because they thought it was perfectly safe.

They're better than nothing, I guess I'm saying.

Permalink to Comment

6. Anonymous on May 26, 2009 12:33 PM writes...

what bugs me is that I imagine that the MSDS information is a summary of extensive animal testing that's required for commercially available chemicals. I always shudder when I think about this sort of animal testing, but understand that it is for the greater good and that it is necessary to avoid accidents involving toxicity to humans. I'm not against animal research. However, when I think about the fact that there are scientists out there who are trying to determine how much sand a rabbit has to inhale before it suffocates, and that nearly ALL of this information is completely ignored (because it's worthless), it makes me really angry. Why can't these procedures be either (a) modified so that they provide valuable information or (b) given-up altogether with the expectation that common sense tells you to avoid getting chemicals on/in you?

Permalink to Comment

7. Maks on May 26, 2009 12:35 PM writes...

The problem is that no one takes MSDS serious, if things like sand and rust sound as dangerous as methyl iodide so why should anyone pay attention to it?
Of course wear suitable protective clothing, but was is suitable? pressurized full body clothing? gloves? goggles? or is a lab coat enough?
Search medical assistance, as if any ER doctor would know what to do if you present him/her the MSDS or draw the molecular formula.
A lot of accidents could be avoided if those MSDS would be user and not lawyer friendly. Just write "avoid skin contact or inhalation by any means", "in case of skin contact wash with plenty of tap water and there should be no permanent health damage".

Permalink to Comment

8. Chemjobber on May 26, 2009 12:40 PM writes...

I've yet to see a copy of it, but from what I've been told, Bretherick's (sp?) sounds like the exact opposite of MSDSs.

Also, this is a good place to put in a plug for Kyle Finchsigmate's new wiki for chemists:

While it's not a place for safety information on reagents, I suspect it will become a place for safety information on procedures.

Permalink to Comment

9. hypnos on May 26, 2009 12:51 PM writes...

A loosely related story from the news: In germany, the authorities just pulled a soft drink from the supermarkets (more or less nationwide), because someone found *0.4 micrograms* of cocaine per liter in it. Apparently, there were some impurities present in some natural flavours used in the production. Unfortunately, nobody took the time that you would have to drink at least 10.000 liters to see some effect.

Permalink to Comment

10. Dave on May 26, 2009 1:04 PM writes...

Having spent a number of years on an emergency response team, I can tell you that information, of any kind, is lacking from the site of a spill (which seems to always be at the worst possible place/time/scenario/etc.). Thus, having a MSDS available is much better than having nothing available, even if it is oriented towards the side of excessive caution. Thus, while those of us who are knowledgeable about chemistry often decry the excessive precautions recommended by MSDSes, we have to remember that most emergency responders have little, if any, knowledge of chemistry. Plus, quite a few are motivated by heroic ideals which can cause them to charge into dangerous situations if the MSDSes don't warn them otherwise.


P.S. For a real world example, suppose your emergency response team is called out, at 4:00 AM on a Saturday morning, to where a semi has been pulled over on the side of an interstate highway for leaking cargo. After arriving on scene, you find that there are two 55 gallon drums of "Organic Peroxide" on the back of the truck, one of which has been nicked by a forklift tine while being loaded, such that it's allowing the liquid to slowly seep out. Now, imagine the ambient temperature is about 60F, but that this is mid-July in the southern US (expected high temperature of 90+F later in the day). What should you do? (And, yes, this really happened!)

Permalink to Comment

11. Norepi on May 26, 2009 1:05 PM writes...

#9: I don't know, you'd be surprised how much Mountain Dew grad students can drink in a day.

I liked Dylan Stiles' blanket chemical warning much better: "Don't Eat It, ok?"

Permalink to Comment

12. Lucas on May 26, 2009 1:07 PM writes...

That MSDS for sand seemed a bit alarmist, though I suppose reasonable until I ran into this gem: "Do not let this chemical enter the environment." Yes, it would be a shame if any quartz got into the environment.

Permalink to Comment

13. Sili on May 26, 2009 1:39 PM writes...

I think we need to go in the other direction if we want things to improve.

Complaining about too much 'caution' on research chemicals will get us nowhere. No we need to lobby for MSDSs to be used everywhere. Why should sodium chloride be treated differently when you by it at the supermarket? Sodium benzoate? - that one's gonna freak out people. I say attach MSDSs to all chemicals no exceptions. It's not like they need to write new ones - they just need to be applied more widely.

Until more people see sense, of course.

Permalink to Comment

14. NH_chem on May 26, 2009 1:54 PM writes...

Look up Dihydrogen Monoxide and read the MSDS (or click on my name above). That stuff is nasty and I would never want to work with it...................

Permalink to Comment

15. CMCguy on May 26, 2009 1:59 PM writes...

As mentioned MSDSs tend to be more legal CYA/DOT Reg documents that most chemists find completely inane however as #10 Dave suggests a target audience is Firefighters and other Emergency personnel who lack deep understandings to differentiate between potential hazards that could end up making situations worse. I actually have been an ERT member and gotten calls in middle of the night to deal with something that turned out to be innocuous but Security Guard or Firefighters did not have anything to guide them. I think it would benefit chemists to talk with or do ride-a-longs because although Firefighters are extremely brave any "chemical incident" can really show how much fear/misunderstanding exists in dealing with things we in the lab take for granted.

Having help generate a few MSDSs can suggest it is very difficult task since in most cases either no or very limited specific information so typically have to look at "related" compounds to glean what one trusts is meaningful. Usually only when a compound becomes "commercial" does significant studies get done. Engineers often have better training and awareness coming in then most chemists for hazards. As #8 CJ noted above Bretherick's Handbook is excellent resource (even on scale-up issues) with "Prudent Practices" Book(s) are especially good for labs. Sometimes Org Syn Footnotes contain warning and have seen some papers over the years that will state compounds were found to be lycromators(?) or irritants so suspect determined by experience.

Permalink to Comment

16. metaphysician on May 26, 2009 2:09 PM writes...

#10 Dave: Call the bomb squad and evacuate everyone within a few hundred yards?

Permalink to Comment

17. ... on May 26, 2009 2:35 PM writes...

Ahh, yes, overprotective legalese. The same kind of writing that ends up with EULAs that make you agree not to use your iPod in the manufacture of chemical, biological, nuclear, or other weapons of mass destruction.

Permalink to Comment

18. Bruce Hamilton on May 26, 2009 3:10 PM writes...

Before we get too superior about MSDS that other produce, perhaps we should consider what other information is immediately available to any emergency responder arriving at our workplaces tonight.

Not sure about the US, but here in NZ, laboratories and chemical industry sites are expected to have a white board at the door listing hazards, and pointing to relevant MSDS or euqivalent, that can be accessed within a minute, if not physically present.

I'm not sure how beneficial Bretherick would be - I've never found it to be easy-to-find information source. The NFPA Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Handbook could also provide some basic resource for emergency responders. I'd almost want to obtain/read the latest edition, just to find what WMD are covered, as my earlier edition doesn't have them.

My preferred source of safety information for many commercial chemicals is Sax ( Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials ), but it's clearly not appropriate for many research activities, but then neither are the above sources.

A researcher has the responsibility to ensure appropriate safety information is available, so if you don't offer copied MSDS, what do you do?.

Permalink to Comment

19. david on May 26, 2009 4:03 PM writes...

You think the MSDS for sand is bad? Try this:

My favorite part is the 'first aid' section.

As one of my friends put it: "Am unclear whether to flush eyes with *more* HPLC-grade water
, or with tapwater. Please advise. V. urgent."

(I do note that that document has since been revised to be less idiotic...)

When I was working with NASA, the regs said we had to provide an MSDS for the working fluid of any pressurized system. Fair enough. Except that our working fluid was *air*.

Permalink to Comment

20. MAD on May 26, 2009 4:30 PM writes...

Over reacting is not drains resources from the important areas. For mr paramedic If you use all you epi pens up on minor reactinos people who really need them wont have them and die. Its hard to see it in th ebig picture because it takes years for the economy to be drained by this misinformation. But it is happening. There are less jobs out there because of all this nonesense, money is being wasted in droves on this psudo safety. The root of the problem needs to be fixed so saftey money will be spent in the proper areas and not drained away on bags of sand