Learning About Chemicals

Lets learn some things about cleaning chemicals.

Why do alkaline cleaners work so well?

Well the first reason is simple. We live in an acid world!

Most things in and around us every day are acidic. Even we are acidic. Most people’s skin sits at about 5.3 on the pH scale (acidic). The air we breathe out, CO2 is acidic. Most dirt particles are acidic. The most pH balanced thing we deal with every day is water, that sits at about the pH neutral 7. I bet when you were back in school and sitting in a science, chemistry or math class you where thinking "When I am ever going to need to know this?" Well now that you are in a business that uses chemicals you may be regretting not paying more attention.

Dirt and most pollutants are acidic and therefore since opposites attract, can cancel each other out and will break the physical bond holding them to a surface the best cleaners for most applications fall on the alkaline side of the pH scale. This is also the reason two step washing is so popular and works so well, such as in fleet washing. You first apply an acid, followed right behind with an alkaline and 'Voila' the dirt falls off, or in reality the dirt is repelled from the surface. But luckily since most dirt or soiling agent is already acidic using an alkaline cleaner of equal or greater pH the exact opposite distance on the pH scale is only what you need to release it with no added acid needed. If you don't have one strong enough you will need added physical action to remove the soil instead of just the chemical.

Since pH stands for the "Power of Hydrogen", and Hydrogen, that makes a pH level, can only be found in a water soluble liquid, so how do we find out the pH of a dry soil on a surface? Easy you add water to it. You need a fine mist spray bottle filled with distilled water (so you know the waters pH will be a neutral 7) and you lightly mist a soiled surface. You then place a pH litmus paper strip to the now damp surface. The hydrogen in the water reacts with the soil/dirt and will now give you a pH level. Some times the pH will change slightly the longer the surface is wet as it may take a little time for the water to dissolve some of the elements in the soil so check it a few times over several minutes to see it is varies.

Once you know the soils pH you can choose a chemical with the opposite pH range to release it. But for most cleaning you just learn what certain chemicals remove certain types of soils. For instance hydroxides and butyls for oils and grease, acids for rust and minerals on stone, concrete or brick.

Chemicals are a part of any cleaning contractors world, although for some more than for others. And many times new comers as well as those that have been in the industry for a while may have ideas that are not based in science or fact but by things heard and passed around that may have become factual in their mind.

So let us touch on some of these that are easy to misunderstand, and some very ingrained notions about chemicals.

"Only chemicals like sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide are caustic."

False, any chemical with very high or very low pH can be called a caustic. Caustic means the ability to burn or corrode organic tissue by chemical reaction. This can happen with both acids and bases (alkaline). I think this idea first came from the fact that 'caustic soda' is the other name for sodium hydroxide so being caustic is associated more with products with this ingredient or family of chemical ingredients.

Another one. "Only acids will burn you." or "If it burns skin it must be an acid."

So very false, both high and low pH chemicals may cause burns since they both are caustics. And the most dangerous acid you can use is a mild acid, hydrofluoric acid, which even at high dilutions may not cause pain or skin irritation before it starts to really harm you and with repeated exposure in even small amounts can lead to death.

"If the chemical ingredients are all natural they can not harm you or the environment."

This one many contractors try to use to sound good to their customers. "Oh we only use natural chemical products so you have nothing to worry about." Vinegar is made from only fruit and grains and was one of the very first natural chemicals man found and used for cleaning, but let a strong vinegar get in your eyes or on your skin, it will burn and can blind you. Citrus oil is a great cleaner and for the most part can be an ingredient found in some of the safer cleaners but it too if found in a concentration of more than 1% is considered by OSHA to be a corrosive chemical (ascorbic acid among other variations) and warrants carrying the corrosive GHS pictogram Where as if the same product is sold in a store in consumer package this warning sign does not have to appear.

Then in the opposite case, "If the chemical is man-made then they are inherently dangerous."

False. Chemical descriptions of "artificial", "industrial" or "synthetic" in no way means that the product contains harmful chemicals. Most of the safest "Green" chemical products available today have neutral pH's and are completely safe for the environment. But realize even if a product was safe enough to drink, once you have used it to clean a surface it has to be considered contaminated waste water that must be treated before discharging due to the dirt, oils and pollutants you have removed from that surface with the "Safe" cleaner.

Another one that goes along with the last one. "Synthetic chemicals are causing most cancers and other health issues in people." Although a lot more testing needs to be done and many times it is years later before a considered safe chemical is linked to cancer and health problems, naturally found chemical ingredients can also cause cancer. Most times it is the excessive amount, repeated use or concentration of a chemical that is found to bring about cancer conditions in some people not the just it's inclusion.

One we all have to think about. "I only use safe chemical products so I do not have to worry about getting sick from using them."

Again False. This is why the same consumer products if sold to professionals have to carry more stringent health labeling than products that a lay person may use only a few times a month or year. Contractors on the other hand may use a chemical many times a day, day in day out, therefore they have a much greater risk of succumbing to compound chemical exposure. And an even greater risk when using different products in combination or in succession when a lay person would not have this exposure.

For the commercial contract cleaner, the products used can be a ticking time bomb of a cocktail of chemicals. It is always a good rule of thumb to use PPE even when using consumer products not labeled to do so, to wash, clean or use disposable PPE throughout the day and to wash your hands frequently through out the day to help remove any possible chemical residue that might react badly with contact of the next product. Always wash your hands before eating or putting any item you might touch into your mouth. I cringe when I see a contractor absent mindedly putting a pen in his mouth he just used after moving around chemical containers on his rig. The chance of some residual chemical being transferred from the containers to his hand to the pen to his mouth is too great of a risk.

You should be given an SDS, Safety Date Sheet, with every new chemical you purchase. If you do not already have one for a chemical you use, go ask your vendor for one. For OSHA you need to have them and keep them in a binder. And for many businesses more than one binder copy may be needed as you need to have a binder where you store your chemicals, with your truck or rig when transporting chemical and where using the chemicals. Reading the SDS gives you all the information you need to use the chemicals such as the pH, dilution ratios, application directions, what PPE you need and any safety hazards. Understanding your chemicals and how they work will make your business safer and more profitable.

Author Bio: Linda Chambers

Brand and Sales Manager for GCE/Georgia Chemical Equipment and Soap Warehouse Brand of chemical products located in Norcross, GA

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