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Safe spring cleaning: what you should know about chemical burns

With the first official day of spring behind us, many people will be planning on doing a thorough spring cleaning around the house. But, did you know that some household cleaning products can become hazardous when stored or used improperly? Take, for example, the story last week about a man who suffered chemical burns on his face after mixing two drain cleaners together. He was trying to unclog his kitchen sink, but the resulting explosion and release of toxic fumes sent two people to the hospital.

If you do get a chemical burn, “see a doctor as soon as possible,” says Dr. Marc Jeschke, medical director, Ross Tilley Burn Centre at Sunnybrook. However, to avoid this kind of situation in the first place, there are a few safety measures you can take to protect yourself:

  • Don’t mix household cleaners together– this can result in an explosive reaction, which can burn you
  • Beware of fumes– That same explosive reaction can create fumes that burn your throat as you breathe them in
  • Don’t cover up or remove safety labels from household chemical products
  • Safe storage– don’t store products that may release harmful fumes or catch fire inside your home, like paints, solvents, gasoline, fuels or varnishes
  • Keep emergency contacts handy– post emergency phone numbers by your telephone, or program them into your cellphone

What if you take safety precautions, but you (or someone around you) end up getting a chemical burn? Of course, you’ll need to seek medical attention by calling 911 or driving to the nearest hospital, but what should you do while waiting for help to arrive? Judy Knighton, clinical nurse specialist, Ross Tilley Burn Centre at Sunnybrook, says there are several important steps that need to be taken to ensure everyone’s safety when a chemical burn has occurred:

  • Carefully remove saturated clothing– otherwise, the chemical will continue to burn into the skin. Using gloves, place any saturated personal belongings into a plastic bag to avoid injuring anyone else
  • Carefully wipe any powder chemicals off without scratching the skin– this will prevent the chemical from being absorbed into the skin when rinsing the burn with water
  • Continuously rinse the burn with lots of water – use running water in a shower, sink or even clean water from a garden hose if you’re outside. It’s important to keep rinsing the burn (sometimes for several hours), until the pain decreases or the patient is seen in an Emergency Department. Use a water bottle to rinse the area while driving to the hospital
  • Don’t submerge the burn– submerging or soaking the burned area in a bathtub can make the chemical burn worse. Be sure to rinse the burned area with running water instead
  • Protect yourself – when helping someone who has suffered a chemical burn, protect yourself by wearing gloves and avoiding careless handling of saturated clothing. If there’s no way to protect yourself before emergency personnel arrive, thoroughly rinse any clothing or personal belongings with water, and then carefully remove and bag the contaminated items


About the author

Sybil Millar

Sybil Millar

Sybil Millar is the Communications Advisor for Infection Prevention and Control, Infectious Diseases, the Ross Tilley Burn Centre and the Critical Care program at Sunnybrook.

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