Friday, February 10, 2012

Proper Use of Bases in Cleaning

In a previous post I discussed acids which have a pH of under 7 on the pH scale.  Less well known among cleaners are bases which are chemicals with a pH higher than 7 when dissolved in water.  The reason it is important to understand bases is because they are very common in certain cleaners and they can be extremely dangerous to you and your employees.   This is not to say all dollar store cleaners are bad, in fact about 1/3 of the chemicals I use come from dollar stores.  However in some cases, the savings are not worth the risk to life.  Like acids, the pH scale works on a logarithmic scale meaning each point on the scale is based on a multiplier of 10.  A slightly higher number is a much stronger base. 

Bases are often used in de-greasers and oven cleaners.  Bases work great in these products for two reasons.  First, strong bases break down organic matter such as foods and greases.  Second, when a strong base is mixed with a fat it turns the fat into soap - literally turning the thing we are trying to get rid of into an agent that helps clean.  Old fashioned soap is made by combining lye which is a strong base with a pH of 13 with fats such as lard and vegetable oils.

So this sounds great.  A base will turn fat into soap.  We should use them all the time, right?  Well the problem with bases is they are very dangerous.  Most people understand acids are dangerous because if you spill them on your skin, they hurt.  Many common bases used in cleaning do not cause pain immediately when they come into contact with skin.  However they can cause serious chemical burns without physical pain until it is too late.  Remember bases break down organic matter which includes skin, bone, and muscle.  A base can be absorbed through the skin and it turns body fat into soap.  While this is not deadly it is EXTREMELY painful because the only treatment is to let the body break down and absorb the soap in the body over time.  If you ever got soap in a cut imaging have a bar of it under your skin... for a week.  

Because bases are cheap and effective you will often find them in in-expensive oven cleaners.  There are other safer ways to clean an oven than using a strong base but they are more expensive.  There are many cases when low cost cleaners make sense but oven cleaners is not one of them.  To prove my point, I am going to tell you to share information off the MSDS sheets to show the difference.  Below are  excerpts from Easy Off and a cheaper generic oven cleaner's MSDS sheets.

Easy Off Oven Cleaner pH 12.25
Rated level 2 by OSHA meaning - Temporary or minor injury may occur.

Generic Oven and Grill Cleaner pH 13.8  (remember 14 is as high as it goes)
Rated level 3 by OSHA meaning – Major or permanent injury likely unless prompt action is taken and medical treatment is given.  The MSDS sheet says also says to use a respirator, goggles without air vents, gloves rated for level 3 chemicals, and skin cream on any exposed skin. 

The Generic Oven and Grill Cleaner does a great job cleaning ovens.  It tears through even the worst ovens and if you ever used it you probably wondered why anyone would pay five to six times more for Easy Off.  Well this is the answer.  A base this strong can cause terrible damage to you and those that work for you.  It is not worth the $4.00 saved to take the risk.  This can cause life changing injuries to who ever uses it and unacceptable liabilities to you as the employer.

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