Hesperian Health Guides

APPENDIX B: Common chemicals and materials

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

Many workers do not know the names of all the chemicals they come in contact with. Sometimes chemicals are put into small containers without labels. Other times employers hide the chemical information or call the chemical by other names and not its chemical name. Also, most factories do not track how chemicals applied earlier in the process can affect workers down the line or how much and what kind of byproducts are produced when a chemical is used. But all these chemicals can affect your health and you have a right to know about them.

The charts in this section will help you use the information you know about a chemical to identify it or learn more about its effects.

  • What are they? will tell you what it looks, smells, or tastes like.
  • Do you work with them? gives information about its uses in garment, shoe, or electronics factories.
  • When they come in contact with your body gives information about how a chemical can hurt your eyes, skin, nose, lungs, mouth, and belly.
  • When you are exposed over time explains how the chemical can hurt your body in the long term, for example, if it causes sexual and reproductive health problems or cancers.
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The charts include what kind of protective equipment you should wear if your factory does not have good ventilation, if the controls do not work well, or if you are concerned that they are not protecting you. The only real solution to chemical dangers is to not use chemicals that can harm people, but to substitute safer chemicals. In the meantime, it is important that people have ways to protect themselves. If you are concerned about the ventilation in your factory or workstation, see Chapter 17 to learn how good ventilation keeps chemicals out of the air. If you are concerned about a chemical touching your skin or eyes, see Chapter 18: Personal protective equipment.

Use these charts to talk with other workers about the health dangers they are experiencing or worrying about. The charts can help you organize to demand better protection from the chemicals you are using and to demand that the worst chemicals be banned and removed from your factory.

Too many chemicals, too little information

Coming in contact with chemicals makes it more likely that you will have health problems. However, there is too little information about how chemicals hurt people because they have not been studied enough. Of the 90,000 chemicals in use today, only a few thousand have been studied for some health effects! And although we know that chemicals are more harmful in combination with other chemicals than they are alone, there have been even fewer studies of how multiple chemicals affect us.

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Until a chemical is studied for health effects (acute and chronic), how it affects the environment, and how it interacts with other chemicals, we should consider it dangerous. Many people believe that it is not fair to chemicals to say they are dangerous until proven safe. But we say it is not fair to people, to workers and their families, to work with chemicals not proven absolutely safe. If you cannot find information about a chemical, treat it as dangerous and protect yourself from coming in contact with it (see Chapter 8: Chemical dangers, Chapter 17: Ventilation, and Chapter 18: Personal protective equipment).

These charts do not include information about how chemicals pollute the environment and harm people’s health outside the factory. Often we are exposed multiple times to dangerous chemicals: first, inside the factory, and then again through polluted air, water, and soil in our communities. If you cannot find out if chemical wastes are being disposed of safely, assume that they are not. See Chapter 33: Pollution from factories, for information about good disposal and how to organize against factory pollution.

These charts contain only about 100 common chemicals used in shoe, garment, and electronics factories. There are just too many in use to list them all. We did not include chemical mixes since mixes often change, are different from factory to factory and brand to brand, and their ingredients are often kept secret. To find out about a chemical not included in these charts, or for other information, see "Learn about chemicals used in your factory", and "To find information about chemicals and materials,
use these sources we consulted
" for other resources that can help you. You may know the same chemical by a different name; see the Index of chemical names.

Where did this information about chemicals come from?

Of the thousands of chemicals in use, few have been studied fully to know how they affect our health when used alone or when they mix with other chemicals. Concerns such as acute effects, flammability, and proper storage have been well-investigated and the information we have is mostly accurate and good. But we know little about long-term health and environmental effects.

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In developing this book, we consulted many resources, including materials produced by international agencies that classify chemicals, government agencies that regulate chemicals, nonprofits that work to protect people from chemicals, and chemical companies that make and sell chemicals.

The information we found varied among all the trustworthy sources we consulted. The information we included in the book and in these charts is based on the following principles of when to recognize a danger:

  • The chemical has been found to cause harm. Sometimes different health problems were listed in different resources. To be safe, we included all problems found in every source.
  • The lowest level at which a chemical can cause harm, for example, when the smell of a chemical indicates a level of exposure. Levels of exposure considered to be safe vary from one country and one resource to another. When we include a level of exposure, we choose the lowest level that was found to be the border between safe and unsafe.
  • The chemical has been found to be a probable or possible cause of cancer or reproductive health problems. If a chemical could possibly or probably cause cancer or reproductive health problems, or if it was found to cause them in animals, we say it "may cause" the problem.
  • The chemical has been found to cause cancer or reproductive health problems. If any source said that it caused cancer in people, that is how we categorized it.

Find a chemical in the charts

The chemicals and materials below are grouped in families. These families show you how similar chemicals relate to each other. If your boss adds or replaces a chemical with an unknown new one, look at what category it belongs to and see if the new chemical has any of the characteristics of other chemicals on the chart.

The chemical families appear in the order of the alphabet. The chemicals inside each family are also listed in the order of the alphabet. Chemicals that start with a number (such as 2-butanone) come before chemicals that start with letters (such as acetone):

1 2 3 4 A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Sometimes chemical names are very similar. The difference may be only a few letters or a number. But these small differences can make a great difference in how the chemical acts. To avoid confusion or mistakes, each chemical also has a unique number called a CAS number. The chart shows the CAS number for each chemical. A few chemicals in this list do not have CAS numbers because they represent a category of chemicals. There are many azo dyes, for example, and each one has a CAS number, but azo dyes as a category do not have a CAS number so you will not find one listed.

If the chemical name you want to look up is not in the chart, use the Index of chemical names. For example, the chemical "chlorine bleach," used to acid-wash jeans, is sometimes called "Clorox" and sometimes called "sodium hypochlorite." In the index you will find all three names. They will all link to the same chart for chlorine bleach.

If you cannot find a chemical, see Learn about chemicals used in your factory, and resources that can help you find more information.

What the symbols mean

The symbols below appear next to the chemical name at the top of the chart. They tell you which chemicals are more dangerous (more and darker symbols mean more danger). But even if a chemical does not have symbols it does not mean it is safe.

Chem-icon-banned.png This symbol means that the chemical or material has been banned or is soon to be banned in one or more countries because it is harmful to people’s health and the environment. If it is banned in one country, it should be banned in all.
Chem-icon-fire.png This symbol means that the chemical or material is likely to catch on fire or explode. Pay attention to chemicals or materials it might react with, and keep it away from heat or a possible spark.

These 2 symbols mean that the chemical might cause or causes reproductive health problems:

Chem-icon-repro-maybe.png The man and woman with a white background and a question mark means that there is a possibility it might cause reproductive health problems.
Chem-icon-repro.png The man and woman with a black background means that this chemical has been proven to cause reproductive health problems.

The chart text explains what kind of reproductive health problem it can cause, such as reduced fertility in men, women, or both, miscarriages, and damage to a baby inside the womb. For more information about reproductive health problems, see Chemicals cause sexual and reproductive health problems and Chapter 26: Sexual and reproductive health.

These 2 symbols mean that the chemical might cause or causes cancer:

Chem-icon-cancer-maybe.png The letter C with a white background and a question mark means that there is a possibility it might cause cancer.
Chem-icon-cancer.png The letter C with a red background means that this chemical has been proven to cause cancer.

The chart text explains what kinds of cancers it may or can cause, if that is known.

Chem-icon-death.png This symbol means that the chemical can cause immediate death if you are exposed to it. Although most of the chemicals can cause death if you are exposed to high doses or for a long time, we used this symbol only for the ones that would kill you immediately.

This page was updated:28 Feb 2021