By Justin Panzarella, BS, MPH (c) Derek G. Shendell, D.Env., MPH and Koshy Koshy, Ph.D.
Understanding chemical exposure and storage hazards
The federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) affirms that inhalation of chemical vapors, ingestion and/or absorption of liquids, and injection are pathways of chemical exposure. Adverse effects from acute and chronic chemical exposures depend on factors such as frequency, concentration, duration and route of transmission.
Acute exposure can have adverse effects such as skin, eye, and respiratory irritation, headaches, drowsiness and dizziness. Chronic exposure can have adverse effects such as organ damage, cancer and skin sensitization. Chemicals must be stored properly to avoid incidents and exposure. Facilities where chemicals are commonly stored include nail salons, science laboratories and auto body repair shops.
It is important to follow proper safety measures when handling, storing and disposing of chemicals. Improper chemical storage can lead to explosions, fires, spills, releases of dangerous vapors and other adverse consequences.
The most effective method for reducing staff and student exposure to hazardous chemicals is to eliminate them from the school environment and/or identify a less toxic substitute. If the original product must be used—or even if you do find a safer substitute—the next most effective safety controls would be engineering, administration, and personal protective equipment. One engineering control is installing an exhaust ventilation hood to remove volatile chemicals from the air.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collected and analyzed data from the Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance in elementary and secondary schools about 15 years ago. The CDC’s findings documented mercury was the most common chemical associated with an incident. The three leading causes of chemical incidents reported at elementary and secondary schools were human error (62%), equipment failure (17%) and intentional acts (17%). Thirty percent of incidents resulted in at least one acute injury.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) recently reported about 2-in-3 or 64% of schools inspected were not labeling chemical containers with the date they were received. Additionally, 48% of schools inspected were storing incompatible chemicals in the same location and 40% of inspected schools maintained more than two school years of chemical supply in storage.
The New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) outlines requirements for the safe handling of chemicals. An authorized person must be designated by the employer as the person-in-charge of chemical inventories. This person must monitor chemical storage areas, checking chemicals for their compatibility, toxicity, purity, labeling and quantity. Chemicals that are not compatible must be stored separately to avoid interaction. This is, in part, why federal and state law require labels on chemical containers.
In addition, chemicals must be stored in a well-ventilated area with a ventilation system not connected to any other rooms. This set-up is to avoid vapors and gases from being released into the ventilation system. A well-ventilated room will also help create an ideal temperature for chemicals. Following manufacturers guidelines, it’s important to store chemicals at the ideal temperature and away from direct sunlight.
NJ’s Right-to-Know Act
The NJ Right-to-Know Act (RTK) was created to improve health and safety for the benefit of the public, employees and emergency response teams. Information for hazardous substances is collected, monitored and tracked to obtain workplace and environmental data to benefit employees and public safety. This includes the names and quantities of hazardous chemicals being used and stored at the workplace.
Public and private employers must notify their workers of the hazardous substances they may encounter at the worksite as well as report their inventory to the government. This information benefits public safety in several ways. RTK requirements along with proper training will minimize workplace exposure to hazardous chemical substances and reduce the likelihood of releases. RTK benefits emergency responders reporting to the location in the case of a fire, explosion or spill. A list of hazardous substances for any facility will provide a better response from the emergency responders while appropriately protecting themselves by knowing the hazardous substances in advance.
The NJDEP collects Community RTK surveys completed by private employers. The NJDOH collects RTK surveys completed by public agencies. RTK requires public and private employers to create and maintain a RTK central file, post the RTK poster, label all containers containing hazardous substances and complete the RTK survey.
Employees should check their employer’s RTK survey to learn which products contain hazardous chemicals. An employee can request the ingredient information of the products they are working with in writing from their employer. The employer must provide the employee this information within five business days.
If the employer does not respond to the employee’s request, they may refuse to work. A worker may also refuse to work with an unlabeled container, but they are advised to contact the NJDOH, their local association president and their UniServ field rep prior to refusing to work with the product. Anonymous complaints against your employer are accepted by the NJDOH regarding RTK infractions.
There are ways to locally dispose of hazardous waste that would prevent the risks of contaminating soil, storm drains and wastewater treatment systems. Each of New Jersey’s 21 counties offers a collection program to properly dispose of hazardous waste. There are scheduled dates when residents can go to designated facility to drop-off hazardous waste. Certain restrictions may apply.
Most counties will collect cleaning products, fuels, insecticides, oil-based paint, pool chemicals, chemistry sets, spray paint and turpentine. However, many only accept up to 20 gallons of waste. Local businesses may accept certain products for proper disposal.
Websites such as search.earth911.com will navigate local facilities in your area for recycling specific materials and chemicals by inputting your area code. You can also call 1-800-CLEANUP. Finally, the Recycle Coach app links local municipalities, businesses and people to help assist in the proper disposal of hazardous waste with relevant information to your area.
Dr. Derek Shendell is a professor and Dr. Koshy Koshy is an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health where Justin Panzarella is a registered environmental health specialist and working toward his master’s degree in public health, majoring in occupational safety. They worked in coordination with the New Jersey Work Environment Council to produce this article.
What can health and safety committees do?
Use the resources listed on this page to support your demands for procurement policies, to find alternatives and to stay up to date. Use these resources and the law to demand your school district administration remediate and eliminate hazardous conditions.
References and resources
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
“Hazardous chemical incidents in schools: United States, 2002-2007”
New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH)
“Right to Know”
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP)
“School Chemical Management”
U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
“Understanding Chemical Hazards”