17. Chemical Safety and Toxicology Information

C471 Lecture Notes
Updated: 3 December 2003

I. Introduction

All too often we see news stories of chemical industry practices that have had negative effects on health or the environment or hear reports of serious accidents or spills involving chemicals. An item in Chemical & Engineering News (December 8, 1997, p. 17) reported on "Hanford tanks leaking to groundwater." Groundwater was being contaminated with liquid wastes that had leaked from the tanks at the former nuclear weapons plant in Richland, Washington. The public perception of chemistry is tarnished by such stories, so chemists have a responsibility to use the safest possible practices in handling chemical substances and disposing of them. The American Chemical Society's 1994 document "The Chemist's Code of Conduct" contains these statements:

In this section, we will encounter printed and computer-based sources to help keep abreast of the hazards associated with chemical substances and to become aware of the rules and regulations that govern the use of chemicals.

A large number of acronyms are found in the health and safety area, for example, TLV (Threshold Limit Value). There are also quite a few numbers, in addition to Chemical Abstracts Registry Numbers, that are used to identify chemical substances that have been studied for their environmental or health and safety impact. A single chemical substance may have a DOT (Department of Transportation) number, an RTECS number (from the Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances), and several others assigned by various US, European, International, or other agencies.

Furthermore, new types of chemical data, not likely to have been seen before, will be encountered for chemical substances in the reference tools or databases discussed in this section. These include things such as the octanol/water partition coefficient (Kow), soil organic carbon partition coefficient (Koc), measures of nitrification inhibition, acute toxicity data, and others.

II. General Safety or Toxicology Information Sources

A good printed subject guide to environmentally-related topics is the Encyclopedia of Environmental Information Sources (1993). For over 800 subject areas, ranging from hazardous materials to alternative energy, the encyclopedia lists the major sources of information. Identified are specialized abstracting and indexing services, bibliographies, directories, encyclopedias and dictionaries, handbooks and manuals, online databases, and relevant organizations.

Mirroring the scope and depth of coverage found in the comprehensive treatises published by Pergamon in inorganic, organic, organometallic and other areas of chemistry is the 13-volume Comprehensive Toxicology, that appeared in 1997. The work covers toxicology from the molecular to the organismal level, including a review of the general principles of toxicology, test procedures and data evaluation, and biotransformation of chemicals. The bulk of the volumes, however, are devoted to the specific organ systems of toxicology. Volume 12 treats current concepts of carcinogenesis.

Works encountered in other contexts, such as the Merck Index or the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology include quite a bit of information on the hazardous or safety aspects of the chemicals discussed. However, there are a large number of specialized reference tools whose primary aim is to make the retrieval of such information very easy. Some of those are introduced below.

III. Hazardous Aspects or Toxicology of Chemicals

Sax's Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials (3 v., 10th ed., 1999) covers over 23,500 toxic, carcinogenic, mutagenic, highly flammable, or potentially explosive substances. Included are health-related and physical property data. There are many pages of synonyms in several languages to assist in using the work. It is also indexed by CAS Registry Number. A CD-ROM version is also available.

Bretherick's Handbook of Reactive Chemical Hazards (5th ed., 1995) covers some 5,000 elements and compounds. Now published in two volumes, the first is devoted to specific information on the stability of the compounds or the reactivity of mixtures of two or more of them under various conditions. In volume 2 are found groups of chemical substances arranged on the basis of similarities in structure or reactivity. Stability data on single specific compounds, data on possible violent interaction between two or more compounds, general data on a class or group of compounds (or information on the identity of individual compounds in a known hazardous group), structures associated with explosive instability, and fire-related data are all included in the work. Information on how to use the handbook includes the important caveat "Do not assume that lack of information means that no hazard exists." Over 2,000 pages of information make this the work to consult first for hazardous reaction information. A CD-ROM version is also available, and it can be found on

Patty's Industrial Hygiene and Patty's Toxicology, now in the 5th edition, collectively cover General Principles, Toxicology, and Theory and Rationale. The focus of the work in recent editions has been extended beyond the industrial workplace to environmental safety and hazard control. It is now also available online.

The Dictionary of Substances and their Effects (DOSE) covers over 4,100 chemicals that have been studied for environmental impact or toxicity. The second edition of the print product appeared in 7 volumes in 1999. All purchasers of the print edition of DOSE receive free site-wide access to a fully searchable Web database. DOSE includes results of recent carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, and environmental fate studies, as well as the latest regulatory requirements.

IV. Material Safety Data Sheets and Other Factual Sources

MSDSs or Material Safety Data Sheets are available from the manuafacturer of chemical substances. It is to the manufacturer's advantage to insure that all known hazardous aspects and recommended precautions are clearly laid out to the user of their products, and that is the primary purpose of the MSDS. A very useful guide to MSDSs on the Internet includes sample MSDSs and sources of MSDSs, both on the Internet and elsewhere.

In 1983, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published the Hazard Communication Standard, requiring chemical manufacturers and distributors to provide MSDSs to their customers beginning in late 1985. Since 1993, chemical manufacturers in the US have followed a voluntary MSDS format that is endorsed by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The most important information appears at the top, followed by the chemical name, manufacturer, and composition. The third section identifies known hazards associated with the substance. First-aid measures are next, followed by fire-fighting measures.

The most critical parts of an MSDS are the human health hazards and acceptable exposure limits. However, data on human testing is rare, so MSDSs generally rely on animal test data. The foreign equivalents of the US MSDSs are much shorter. Those are called "International Chemical Safety Cards (ICSCs) and are published by the World Health Organization and the European Union.

Such documents as MSDSs and ICSCs are really geared toward the larger quantities of chemicals used in industry. For academic institutions, although MSDSs are still required on site, a book such as the US National Research Council's Prudent Practices in the Laboratory: Handling and Disposal of Chemicals contains much practical information. The book includes Laboratory Chemical Safety Summaries (LCSSs) that provide the same type of information as do MSDSs, but are geared for the laboratory user. Also found in the work are guidance on risk assessment and tips on how to work with laboratory equipment.

The Environmental Science Center of Syracuse Research Corporation makes available a searchable Physical Properties Database (PHYSPROP) that covers over 25,000 substances. An example of the output is below:

Kow of Isatin

V. The National Library of Medicine's TOXNET System

NLM's TOXNET (Toxicology Data Service) is a free service with access to many toxicology databases that formerly cost money to search. Included are:

The Hazardous Substances Data Bank (HSDB) contains over 4,500 chemical records, each of which can have as many as 150 or so fields of data, covering human health effects, emergency medical treatment, animal toxicity studies, metabolism/pharmacokinetics, pharmacology, environmental fate and exposure, environmental standards and regulations, chemical/physical properties, chemical safety and handling, occupational exposure standards and more. HSDB is peer-reviewed by a committee of experts, the Scientific Review Panel (SRP).

VI. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS's) Databases

Among the numerous reasonably priced databases offered by CCOHS is RTECS, the Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances. RTECS was originally produced by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), but has now been outsourced to MDL. RTECS provides toxicological information with citations on over 140,000 chemical substances. Included are toxicological data and reviews, international workplace exposure limits, references to US standards and regulations, analytical methods, and exposure and hazard survey data. RTECS contains:

CCOHS also maintains an extensive Material Safety Data Sheet collection and other databases covering aspects of occupational safety and health that range to ergonomics/workplace design and psychological aspects of a safe workplace environment.

VII. MDL and CAS Databases

Incorporated into the results of substance searches on SciFinder and SciFinder Scholar is a link to Chemical Abstracts Service's CHEMLIST database, a source of regulatory information for over 220,000 chemical substances covering 1979 to the present. From the STN Database Summary Sheet of 10/03:

CAS has also created a multidatabase product called TOXCENTER (Toxicology Center). It is a bibliographic database that covers the pharmacological, biochemical, physiological, and toxicological effects of drugs and other chemicals.

TOXCENTER is composed of the data from 18 other STN files, including:

The records in the file contain bibliographic data, abstracts, indexing terms, chemical names, and CAS Registry Numbers.

MDL incorporates in the Beilstein database a field for phamacological data that includes much relevant information. For example, the isatin record (BRN 383659) has information on MAO-inhibiting activity, acute toxicity, and other biological activity of the substance. Bear in mind that Beilstein should not be considered a comprehensive source of data, since such information began to be added to the Beilstein database only in the 1980s.

The EcoPharm module is an add-on to CrossFire. EcoPharm's pharmacological and toxicological data focus on:

VIII. The CIS: Chemical Information System

One of the first integrated, structure-searchable systems, this database had its roots in the old Chemical Information System, a joint project of the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency. The current database is a for-fee product, available from NISC, the National Information Services Corporation. the present CIS includes databases in the following areas:

Hazardous materials are classified as toxic, corrosive, ignitable, or reactive. They can be liquid, solid, or gas.

IX. US Environmental Protection Agency and Other US Government Sources

The EPA maintains a Substance Registry System to assist in locating chemical and biological substances whose properties make them of concern to the EPA. Chemicals are identified by a Chemical Abstracts Service Registry Number (CASRN) or if not available, an EPA Chemical Identifier (EPA ID), a systematic name (generally the CAS 9th Collective Index Name), a molecular formula, a molecular weight, former CASRN references, synonyms, and information about regulations, EPA data systems, and other sources that list the chemical.

Other resources at EPA include:

The gateway to most US federal government sources now is FirstGov. Environment, Energy, and Agriculture is one of the main categories that citizens can choose at this site.

X. Other Sources

The Royal Society of Chemistry has produced since 1981 a bibliographic database called the Chemical Safety NewsBase (CSNB). It covers health and safety hazards of chemicals in relevant industries. There are many other sources in which to find chemical safety, toxicological, or environmental information. Examples are specialized abstracting services such as Water Resources Abstracts, publications from organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association or the American Chemical Society, and the many sources available from governmental agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control or the Environmental Protection Agency, not to mention a wealth of publications in these areas by commercial publishers, such as Lewis' Dictionary of Toxicology.

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Copyright 1998
Gary Wiggins