University of Missouri Extension

WM6006, New April 1993

Identifying Product Hazards:
Material Safety Data Sheets

Marie Steinwachs
Office of Waste Management

Knowing a product's ingredients, as well as the potential hazards associated with those ingredients, is essential in planning adequate protection from the dangers of a hazardous product. Yet not all products readily provide this basic information for consumers. If you decide to buy a product that does not give complete information about its hazardous ingredients, you may need to contact the manufacturer or distributor and request a copy of the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for that product. The company address should be on the product label.

What makes a product hazardous?

A product is considered hazardous if it has one or more of the following properties:

A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) lists the ingredients in a hazardous product, the hazards to safety and health, and the precautions to follow when using the product. If the manufacturer claims its product is a trade secret, the ingredients will not be listed on the MSDS.

Under the Hazard Communication Standard written by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers who use, store, or manufacture hazardous materials are required to make Material Safety Data Sheets available to all employees who potentially could be exposed to the material. Although the MSDS is designed for industrial workers, it can provide valuable product information to all users of hazardous products.

In most cases, the product manufacturer prepares the MSDS. While manufacturers are required by law to provide accurate product information, the quality of this information may vary significantly depending upon the thoroughness of each manufacturer. You should not consider an MSDS to be a complete source of information on a product, but rather an essential starting point in gathering important health and safety information. (If you need more information, contact one of the information sources listed at the end of this guide).

To receive an MSDS, write to the manufacturer or distributor of the product. While they are not required to provide consumers with a copy of an MSDS, responsible businesses should respond to your request. They may be slow to respond, so do not be surprised if it takes 4 to 6 weeks.

Keep copies of the letters you mail in order to keep track of the responses you receive. If the manufacturer does not respond after several requests, it should be possible to obtain a copy of the MSDS by contacting the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) where the manufacturer is located.

There are two important items to look for upon receiving an MSDS. First, check to see that the MSDS is written with your intended use of the product in mind. For example, if a product is to be sprayed, but the MSDS only describes the characteristics of the product in powdered or in liquid form, request additional information.

Second, check the date of preparation of the MSDS. If it does not provide a preparation date or if the preparation date is several years old, request an updated copy.

Although there is no standard MSDS format, all Material Safety Data Sheets must contain the same basic information. This information typically is divided into eight major sections. (Figure 1 and Figure 2 is an example of an MSDS form.) In any of these sections, the letters "ND" signify "not determined" and the letters "NA" signify "not applicable."

MSDS form
Figure 1
MSDS form, page 1.

MSDS form
Figure 2
MSDS form, page 2.

Material manufacturer and identification

This section identifies the product and gives the name, address, and emergency telephone number of its manufacturer. The product may be listed by its chemical name or trade name. For example, sodium hypochlorite is a chemical name and Brite Bleach® is its trade name. If the product is a mixture of several chemicals, only its trade name will be listed.

The product also may have a CAS (Chemical Abstract Service) number. CAS is an organization that indexes information about chemicals. Through the use of the CAS number, you can look up additional product information in a variety of sources, such as textbooks on toxicology, found at your local library. The date of preparation of the MSDS should also be provided in this section.

Hazardous ingredients/identity information

This section lists the product ingredients subject to regulations and standards, and lists the percentage of each ingredient by total weight. The product ingredients may be listed by chemical name(s) and by common name(s) (such as bleach). Information may also be provided on ingredient concentration levels that could produce a health hazard. This concentration may be stated in terms of PEL, LD50, or TLV.

There are three types of TLVs

TLVs are not guarantees

There are several reasons why TLVs should not be considered absolute guarantees of protection. First, TLVs are not intended for, nor do they take into consideration exposure values for, children, pregnant women, hypersensitive individuals, or other high risk groups. Second, TLVs are intended for the 8- hour workday per 40-hour workweek, and do not apply to individuals who work longer shifts or to those who live and work in the same environment. Third, TLVs may be revised as new studies reveal hazards that were previously undetected. Finally, there are some substances known to be toxic that have no TLVs because of insufficient data to quantify the risk from exposure.

Notations often used with TLVs and PELs

Physical/chemical characteristics

This section describes the physical characteristics of the product, such as whether it is liquid, solid, or gas at room temperature; how much vapor it forms; whether the vapor rises or settles; and whether the product dissolves in water.

The following provides definitions of commonly used physical data terms.

Fire and explosion hazard data

This section describes the circumstances under which the product may ignite or explode and provides instructions on how to deal with these hazards. The following describes the terms used in this section.

Reactivity data

This section tells how the product will react under particular environmental conditions. The following provides definitions of the terms used to describe reactivity.

Health hazard data

This section provides a combined estimate of the total known hazard of the product. It describes routes of exposure and effects of acute and chronic exposure, including the signs, symptoms and diseases that may result from excessive exposure, any medical conditions that are generally recognized as being aggravated by exposure to the product, and emergency and first aid procedures to follow in case of overexposure.

It may also indicate whether the hazardous product is listed in the National Toxicology Program (NTP) Annual Report on Carcinogens or has been found to be a potential carcinogen in the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) or by OSHA. Hazardous substances may enter the body through one or more of these routes:

Acute health effects are signs and symptoms that result from a single exposure, such as headaches, dizziness, skin or eye irritation, vomiting, coma, or death. Symptoms usually occur shortly after exposure and may range from minor to severe.

Chronic health effects are gradual and occur through repeated exposure over an extended period of time. Examples include cancer, liver or kidney damage, birth defects, or central nervous system damage.

Acute effects usually are reported in more detail than chronic effects because more research has been conducted on acute effects. Isolating the long-term effects of a single chemical is difficult because individuals are exposed to toxic substances from a variety of sources, there may be a lapse in time between exposure and the development of symptoms, and symptoms may vary from one person to another.

Precautions for safe handling and use

This section indicates procedures for cleaning up spills and leaks and disposing of the product. In general, information on disposal is not supplied in detail because local, state, and federal regulations vary. Check with your local waste officials for proper disposal procedures. This section also provides information that might not be listed elsewhere on the MSDS, such as handling and storage information, and cleaning or disposing of contaminated clothing.

Control measures

This section describes personal protective equipment, work practices, and ventilation procedures to use when working with the product.

General rules for identifying product hazards

Other sources of information

For more information

Though much effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained herein, the Household Hazardous Waste Project assumes no responsibility and disclaims any injury or damage resulting from the use or effect of any product or information specified in this publication.
Copyright 1994 by the Environmental Improvement and Energy Resources Authority. Published by the MU Extension Household Hazardous Waste Project in cooperation with EIERA.
WM6006 Identifying Product Hazards: Material Safety Data Sheets | University of Missouri Extension

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