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Many suicide cases are committed using hazardous chemicals. But using chemicals to commit suicide is an abuse of chemicals. Chemicals are useful and must be used for their intended purpose safely. Different types of chemicals have different effects on your health and safety.

Many years ago, I was offered an opportunity to study Chemical Engineering at Copperbelt University. Every time I told people that I was studying Chemical Engineering, most of them responded by questioning me, “so do you want to start making bombs?” Then they would conclude with a warning that, “we don’t need suicide bombers in Zambia!” I would simply laugh over their remarks and help them to understand who a Chemical Engineer is and what he or she does.  Even now, when I introduce myself as a Chemical Engineer, I receive mixed reactions from people. Some people fear me the way they fear chemicals!

Most people have a distorted view of chemicals. They think all chemicals are dangerous. They expect chemicals to have strange appearance, bitter taste and/or a bad smell. If the chemical is colorless or odorless, they assume it’s not a chemical and if it is a chemical, they assume it to be harmless. Most people think that dangerous chemicals must have a strong unpleasant smell and strong colors. This distorted view of chemicals makes most people to think that bitter medicines are better. To them, the more bitter the medicine is, the more effective it is to cure the disease!

Hazardous chemicals are substances that cause harm your health. The type and severity of harm depends on the type of chemical. Hazardous chemicals are not only found big companies like mines or manufacturing companies but also in our homes.

Chemicals are classified according to the severity and type of harm they can cause. The following are some of the types of classes of chemicals. The first type is Irritant. Irritants are chemicals that can cause skin or lung inflammation after contacted repeatedly. (The word ‘contacted’ is used in this article to mean the various ways in which chemicals may enter your body which include inhalation, ingestion or skin absorption). Chemicals which are irritants should not be swallowed, sniffed or allowed to come in direct contact with your skin. You can identify irritants by a special symbol on the product label. Irritants have a black cross symbol in a yellow or amber triangle with a black border line. Sometimes the symbol is accompanied with a word irritant on it.

The second type is harmful. Harmful chemicals are substances which may cause limited health risks when contacted. Sometimes harmful chemicals are labeled as irritant. Irritants and harmful substances often carry the same symbol. Symbol for harmful chemicals may carry a word harmful on it.

The third type is toxic. Toxic chemicals are poisonous substances which may cause death if contacted. They are so dangerous that they are able to prevent a particular body organ from functioning normally such as the heart or kidney. Examples of toxic chemicals include carbon monoxide gas, chlorine gas and heavy metals like lead and mercury. These substances are fatal. The effect of toxic chemicals on health depends on their toxicity, concentration, route of entry into your body, safety control measures in place, duration of exposure or frequency of exposure to the chemicals. You can identify toxic chemicals by a special label on the product label. The symbol is a human skull with bones crossing each other in a yellow or amber triangle. Sometimes the symbol carries the word Toxic on it. Avoid any contact with toxic chemicals.

The fourth type is corrosive. Corrosive chemicals are substances that attack, often by burning, the living tissues or metals. These chemicals are highly reactive. Corrosive chemicals can burn your skin, eyes and throat. For example, ammonia gas is a highly corrosive gas which can severely damage your eyes, burn your skin and cause ulceration of your throat. Other corrosive substances include strong acids and strong alkali like sulphuric acid and caustic soda respectively. You can identify corrosive chemicals by their symbol which is chemical being poured from a test tube burning a piece of metal and a hand in a yellow or amber triangle. The symbol may include the word corrosive. Avoid any direct contact with corrosive chemicals. There are other types of chemicals such as explosive, flammable and oxidants. We will discuss these other chemicals some other time.

We are surrounded by chemicals and we use them every day. Fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides are all chemicals. Medicines are also chemicals. Preservatives used to prolong shelf life of processed foods are also chemicals. Petrol, diesel, paint, oil and lubricants are all chemicals. Even cement is a chemical. The list of chemicals is endless. Always read the product label to identify what type of chemical it is and how to handle it safely. Knowing the chemical type will help you to know its harm on your health and safety. Until next week, stay safe. Zambia needs you.

The author is the CEO of SafetyFocus, a leading safety company in Zambia. For your daily safety tips, like our Facebook page on www.facbook.com/safetyfocussuppliers.

For your comments, contact the author on cell +260 955 179267 or email: k.mark@safetyfocussuppliers.com

 Mark Kunda—Safety Consultant 


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