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Polymers

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HealthWiki > Workers' Guide to Health and Safety > APPENDIX B: Common chemicals and materials > Polymers


Polymers are made of many chemicals called "monomers" that are linked together. A polymer is like a chain of paperclips. Each paperclip represents one monomer. Different polymers are made of different monomers and are linked in different ways. Things made from polymers can be rubbery like shoe soles, sticky like glue, or hard like plastic.

Polymers are often used in electronics, shoes, and textiles.

Polymers are not as toxic as the monomers that link together to make them. But a polymer can break down into individual toxic monomers that can harm you. Also, before a polymer becomes a hard plastic, strong rubber, or sticky glue, a worker may use many harmful chemicals to mold and cure the polymer into the desired shape or form.

The name of the polymer often contains the names of the monomers linked together to make it. The chart includes only a few of the many polymers that exist. See Learn about chemicals used in your factory and how to find information about other polymers. See the Index of chemical names to find alternative names for polymers.

Prevent or reduce exposure:

  • Use ventilation systems that extract fumes and replace or dilute dirty air with clean air (see Chapter 17: Ventilation).
  • Enclose operations whenever possible.
  • Do not mix or pour polymers by hand.
  • Use gloves when handling polymers. Wear correct respirators that fit you. All protective clothing should be clean, available each day, put on before work, and never taken home with you (see Chapter 18: Personal protective equipment).
  • Have an emergency plan that includes first aid treatment and protective equipment for spills, splashes, and exposures. Keep necessary emergency supplies at the work site well stocked and accessible to workers.
  • Work areas where polymers are used, stored, and mixed need to be controlled for heat and monitored for concentration of fumes and vapors. The work areas should also have alarms, fire extinguishers, and a fire emergency plan (see Chapter 11: Fire).


Polymers


Ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) CAS No. 24937-78-8

fire or explosive

Might harm reproductive health

might cause cancer



Phenol formaldehyde resin (PF resin, phenolic resin, Novolac) CAS No. 9003-35-4

fire or explosive

Might harm reproductive health

Known to cause cancer



Polyurethane (PU, polyether urethane foam) CAS No. 9009-54-5

fire or explosive

Might harm reproductive health

might cause cancer


banned

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC, chlorethylene polymer, vinyl chloride polymer) CAS No. 9002-86-2

fire or explosive

Might harm reproductive health

Known to cause cancer


WHAT ARE THEY?
Polymers come in both liquids and solids. Ethylene vinyl acetate comes as white powder that smells like wax, while its monomer, Vinyl acetate, is a clear liquid with a strong, sweet smell. Phenol formaldehyde resin is a liquid with a slight pleasant smell. Polyurethane comes as liquid or solid, while its monomer, Urethane, is a white flourlike powder or sand-like crystal. Polyvinyl chloride comes as white powder or pellets, while its monomer, Vinyl chloride, is a colorless gas with a sweet smell, but it is used as a liquid under pressure.
DO YOU WORK WITH THEM?
Polymers are used to make rubber in shoe soles. They are used to make plastics and textiles. Phenol formaldehyde is a resin used in photoresist in electronics and in textiles to prevent wrinkles. Polymers are also used in glues.
WHEN THEY COME IN CONTACT WITH YOUR BODY
SKIN

They irritate your skin. You may develop a skin rash, redness, dryness, and blisters. Your skin might start peeling, itching, and cracking. See First Aid.

EYES

They irritate your eyes. See First Aid.

NOSE/LUNGS

The vapors and dusts irritate your nose, throat, and lungs, causing congestion, coughing, sneezing, and shortness of breath. They can cause dizziness, confusion, and headaches. See First Aid.

MOUTH/BELLY
If they get into your mouth and belly, they can cause nausea, stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. See First Aid and seek medical attention.
WHEN YOU ARE EXPOSED OVER TIME:

Polymers are not as toxic to people as the monomers they contain. But when cut, heated, or manipulated, polymers and their byproducts can release dangerous dust and vapors.

Vinyl acetate in EVA may affect the heart, nervous system, and liver. It may reduce fertility in men. It may cause cancer.

Phenol formaldehyde resin releases formaldehyde, which can damage your lungs, cause bronchitis and asthma, and may damage a baby inside the womb and reduce fertility in women. See Formaldehyde.

Urethane in Polyurethane can damage kidneys, liver, brain, and bone marrow. It may cause cancer. It may damage and cause cancer in a baby inside the womb.

Vinyl chloride in PVC can damage the liver, nervous system, and lungs. It may damage a baby inside the womb, reduce fertility in men, and cause miscarriages. It can cause liver, brain, lung, and other cancers. In electronics, workers using PVC are often exposed to lead and cadmium , and phthalates.
IF YOU ARE AT RISK OF EXPOSURE:

Use ethylene vinyl alcohol gloves and eye/face protection (see Chapter 18: Personal protective equipment). Do not heat or work with large amounts of polymers at once.

Use a respirator with filters, especially when there is a lot of dust or vapor, when working with large surfaces, or when heating polymers.
SAFER SUBSTITUTES:
Alternatives to phenol formaldehyde resin are glyoxal resin and polymeric carboxylic acid. A safer alternative to PVC is polyethylene. An alternative is not to use polymers at all and to use metal or glass instead.



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