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Publishers Letter

Everyday solvents
can be dangerous

From time to time we all use solvents to clean electronic equipment. Maybe it is a case of just cleaning smudges and fingerprints off your computer’s monitor. Possibly you need to clean solder flux off a freshly-assembled PC board or you need to degrease a metal chassis before it is painted. What solvent you use depends on the job and whether any residue can be tolerated.

Is it toxic? Is it inflammable? Can it be used safely without gloves or eye protection? Have you thought about this as you use solvents in your everyday work? If not, you really should. This topic was brought into sharp focus just the other week when our office photocopier had its annual contract service. This is a routine job which rolls around with monotonous regularity. We don’t think about it; the technician arrives, does the job, presents the service form to be signed and that is the end of it.

But on this occasion, within five minutes of the technician arriving, my eyes started to sting and I noticed that I had a headache. I asked the technician if he was using a solvent. The answer was yes. What is it? He didn’t know. When pressed, he said that it was simply Solvent B1? What is in it? Again, there was a blank. Then Ann Morris, our office manager reported that she too had stinging eyes as well as a sore throat. Clearly, there was a problem with this solvent.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, solvent B1 turned out to be quite toxic. It is also known as Sierra Lite. I downloaded two documents:

Reading these should make your hair stand on end! This is a highly toxic solvent and classified as a dangerous chemical (Hazchem code 3Y; Poisons schedule 5). It should only be used with safety goggles, suitable breathing apparatus and gloves! Our service technician had been using it with no protection – just tip a bit on a rag and wipe over the photocopier drum and internal parts – no worries. There was no warning or any information about it on the container.

This stuff is also highly flammable and can be explosive and one must “take precautions against electricity discharges which may cause fire.” And he was using it on a photocopier – which uses high electrostatic voltages!

The more I read through these documents, the more alarmed I became. I phoned the managing director of the service company to find out if he knew about this solvent B1, which his staff was routinely using. He didn’t have a clue. To be blunt, the use of this solvent was putting his whole company operation at risk if anyone, a client or his staff, was injured. There are much safer solvents available for this job; isopropyl alcohol, for example, although even this is relatively toxic.

One thing it has highlighted for me is that any service person who comes into our premises, whether to service a printer, photocopier, the air-conditioner or anything else, will have to advise us about the solvents to be used, any potential hazards and so on, before they start the job.

I suggest you take the same approach. Do you use methylated spirits or Acetone (nail polish remover) regularly? What are their hazards? Check them out! What about paint thinners or floor degreasers? How about the various adhesives you might be using or perhaps heatsink compound? Some adhesives and heatsink compounds are very dangerous.

Even domestic cleaning agents can be quite dangerous, particularly if you are using them in confined spaces, as in a shower recess, for example. Be particularly careful with agents based on ammonia or bleach (chlorine hazard).

Don’t be like our photocopier service technician. For your own health and welfare and that of others around you, be fully informed about all the chemicals you use. It could save your eyesight or even your life!

Leo Simpson

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