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Deciphering your Materials Safety Data Sheet

For all the chemical reagents that we may use on a daily basis, there are many for which we still need to learn how they work and what they can do. Thankfully, for a good majority of chemicals (especially the ones in our lab!) there IS a lot that we can understand because of the information at our fingertips – the Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).

Below is an excerpt from my new ebook – The BitesizeBio Guide to Lab Safety, which you can check out here.

Material Safety Data Sheets (MDMSs)

Your first stop for information about any chemical should always be the Material Data Safety Sheet (MSDS). MSDSs are the instruction manuals for chemicals – what they’re made of, how to handle them, how to dispose of them and more. Even the most seemingly innocuous, common reagent (water, salt or sugar anyone?) can have an MSDS that reads like a horror story. However, each MSDS has the same 16 categories so you can quickly learn the important facts about your reagent and handle it safely and confidently!

1.  The Identification section describes your item (including common names and synonyms), the supplier or manufacturer and what number to contact in case of questions or emergency.

2.  The Hazards Identification section is your “abstract” to the hazards of the chemical. Hazards are described by intensity on a scale of 0–4 (0 = least intense, 4 = most intense), and are often depicted in a colored diamond or hazard information bar for quick examination. This is your key to identifying the immediate impact to health, flammability and reactivity; the specifics are discussed explicitly in following sections.

3.  The Composition & Ingredient Information section describes the makeup of the reagent. Some MSDSs will list individual ingredients; all will include whether or not a particular ingredient is hazardous. Some MSDSs are more inclusive, listing individual chemical names, formulas and molecular weights in this section.

4.  The First Aid Measures tell you what you need to know to render aid to your colleagues in the case of exposure. You will be a “first responder” in case of spillage or exposure until backup arrives.

5.  Firefighting Measures are important to have on hand because not every chemical fire is fought with water. Some reagents decompose as they burn, creating secondary, equally intense hazards that you will need to account for.

6.  The Accidental Release Measures section explains what you need to do to protect yourself and the environment in the case of a spill, and where possible, how to clean up.

7.   Handling & Storage is self-explanatory, though it notes any special circumstances, like if your chemical readily soaks up moisture (i.e. is hygroscopic), including what conditions to avoid (i.e. don’t store acids and bases together).

8.  The Exposure Controls & Personal Protection section describes the PPE  required to protect your lungs, eyes, hands and body when handling the chemical. It defines any exposure limits applicable to the ingredients in your reagent and helps you decide whether or not to request exposure monitoring.

9.  The Physical & Chemical Properties section lists technical data, including molecular weight, color, odor, pH, boiling/freezing/melting points, flash point and vapor pressure, among other interesting information that can help you distinguish one chemical from another.

10.  Stability/Reactivity Information identifies the conditions that will make your reagent an “angry” chemical, such as: shock, static electricity or ambient temperature. Here’s where you can find out if a chemical reagent needs to be combined with an additive to maintain stability, and whether or not there are telltale signs (i.e. color changes) of spoilage to look out for.

11.   Toxicological Information alerts you to the bad things a reagent can do to your body (target organs), whether it causes cancer (carcinogenicity), affects your unborn child (teratogenicity) or your DNA (mutagenicity), and includes the LD50.

12.  The Ecological Information section alerts you to the bad things that a reagent can do to the environment, how it accumulates and how much it degrades (or doesn’t), including the EC50.

13.   Disposal Information describes not only how to discard your chemical when you’re done using it, but how to discard any contaminated packaging.

14.   Transportation Information lists the shipping requirements that apply when the item is shipped from manufacturer/supplier to you, or from you to someone outside of your organization.

15.   Regulatory Information contains required notices at the national and state levels.

16.   Other Information is the most fluid section in your MSDS. Some manufacturers add the date of document creation and updates here. Others use this section to grant you a right to print unlimited copies for internal use. Others state that the information given in the MSDS is current, but that its purpose is to be used as a guide.

Every time you order a new chemical, file the MSDS in your lab’s collection (if it does not already have one). For the reagents you order regularly, think about making a schedule to check whether or not your lab has the latest, updated version. That way you know your records are complete and up to date. You may also want to consider building your own MSDS library for the chemicals that you use most often. If you keep electronic files, you can organize and name each MSDS by item name, manufacturer, assay purpose, etc. in a way that is useful to you.

And that’s just a taste! If you enjoyed reading this and would like to learn even more – or perhaps even pass this on to the newest member of your lab – pick up a copy of our eBook, The BitesizeBio Guide to Lab Safety here.

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