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Health and Environment

Hazards

Acute (Short-Term) Health Effects

  • Sulfuric acid can severely irritate and burn the skin and eyes, potentially causing third degree burns and blindness.
  • If inhaled, sulfuric acid can irritate the lungs and cause coughing or shortness of breath. Higher exposures can cause a build-up of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema); 80 milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3) is immediately dangerous to life and health.
  • Concentrated sulfuric acid vapor or mists can cause rapid loss of consciousness with serious damage to lung tissue.

Chronic (Long-Term) Health Effects

  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies occupational exposure to strong, inorganic mists containing sulfuric acid as a known human carcinogen (Group 1).  Limited evidence suggests that sulfuric acid causes lung cancer in refinery workers.
  • Chronic inhalation of sulfuric acid mist can cause inflammation of the upper respiratory tract, shortness of breath, bronchitis, or emphysema.

Other Hazards

  • Concentrated sulfuric acid can catch fire or explode when it contacts acetone, alcohols, and metals.

Exposure Routes

Worker Health
Any facility using sulfuric acid must minimize worker exposure.

  • Automatically pump liquid sulfuric acid from drums to process containers. If automatic pumps are infeasible, enclose operations and use local exhaust ventilation. If exposure may exceed 1 mg/m3 use a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-approved full facepiece respirator with an acid gas canister and high efficiency particulate pre-filters.
  • Avoid any contact with sulfuric acid. Immediately wash any exposed area and contact a doctor.

Endnotes:
Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), 1999, "Chemical Profile: Sulfuric Acid" (New York: EDF; see webpage: http:/www.scorecard.org/chemical-profiles/); Environmental Health Center (EHC), a division of the National Safety Council, 1997, "Environment Writer: Sulfuric Acid (H2SO4) Chemical Backgrounder" (Washington, D.C.: EHC; see webpage: http://www.nsc.org/ehc/ew/chems/sulfacid.htm); Richard J. Lewis, Sr. (ed.), 1993, Hazardous Chemicals Desk Reference (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold); and New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, 1995, "Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet: Sulfuric Acid" (Trenton, New Jersey; see webpage: http://www.state.nj.us/health/eoh/rtkweb/rtkhsfs.htm).