The Hazards of Sodium Hydroxide

Sodium hydroxide is one of the most dangerous chemicals. It is one of the strongest alkaline, known as caustic soda or lye. It is white, odorless and non-volatile in aqueous solutions. It is not readily flammable. However, it is a highly reactive substance. It forms an exothermic solution with water, evolving heat which may ignite combustible materials nearby. Its reaction with other metals yields hydrogen gas which ignites in the presence of oxygen. Moreover, this substance is extremely corrosive.

This compound is found in many manufacturing plants. It is used in the following industrial purposes: manufacture of soaps, detergents and cleaning agents; processing of cotton and production of rayon and cellophane; processing of petroleum and natural gas; manufacture of pulp and paper; and various other chemical processing like pH control and acid neutralization. This chemical is also found in textile processing, vegetable oil refining, water treatment, manufacture of glass, preparation of adhesives, and stabilization of sodium hypochlorite. It is used in the processing of aluminum and degreasing of metals.

This compound is either used in industries as a pure solid substance or in solutions with water at varying concentrations. It may be found with impurities like sodium chloride, sodium carbonate, and metals like iron and nickel.

This chemical is known in chemistry to be one of the most dangerous substances that must be handled with extreme caution.

This alkaline substance does not form vapors but may form aerosol dust which can be inhaled. Reports from cases of inhalation of caustic soda suggest that this compound has the ability to irritate the respiratory tract lining. A lung injury known as pulmonary edema or the accumulation of fluid in the lungs may happen. Workers exposed to a hot mist of this compound in unventilated area will experience tightness of chest, difficulty in breathing, and cough. This is due to the body’s defense mechanism against the irritant. There was a reported case of a man who sustained severe pulmonary injury due to inhalation of aerosol containing the substance. This happened when water was poured onto sodium hydroxide pellets.

This compound is very corrosive that it should not come in contact with any part of the body. During skin exposure, the substance causes severe burning, ulceration and scarring. One of the dangers of skin exposure is that the chemical tends to destroy deeper layers of the skin until it is washed off. The extent of injury depends on the length and amount of exposure.

Another thing which must be guarded is the possibility of eye contact because the chemical can penetrate deep into the eyes. One of the most obvious symptoms of eye injury due to exposure is damage on the cornea accompanied by clouding and loss of normal vision. This could progress to eye disorders like glaucoma and cataract. The ulceration and clouding in the eye may continue resulting to permanent blindness.

Accidental ingestion of the alkaline may result to even more serious conditions. The substance is likely to corrode anything in its path. Thus, severe burns in the mouth, throat, esophageal lining, and gastric lining may happen. This could be accompanied by vomiting and loose bowel movement. In severe cases hemorrhage and perforation may occur, which leads to death.

These, however, are results of initial and acute exposures. Chronic exposure is one thing that concerns most workers in industrial plants where sodium hydroxide is introduced and utilized. Continual skin contact causes the skin to become dry, cracked, and inflamed. Chronic respiratory exposure may cause serious obstruction in the airway.

A research was conducted to determine whether the inorganic base is responsible for cancer. Individuals who were frequently exposed to it were called in for the study. There is a speculation that the alkaline causes cancer of the esophagus to individuals who have accidentally swallowed it. However, the cancer does not develop until more than ten years from exposure. The same cancer tissue growth has been noticed in areas of the skin that suffered previous burns. But experts believe that the cancerous growths have been due to the damage to the tissue and formation of scar and not directly caused by chemical exposure.