Diseases Caused by Sulfuric Acid

1. Introduction and Definitions

Sulfuric acid (H2SO4) is a highly corrosive, dense, oily liquid used in a variety of industrial processes. It is widely utilized in the manufacturing of fertilizers, chemicals, petroleum refining, metal processing, and battery production. Exposure to sulfuric acid can lead to significant health issues, primarily affecting the respiratory system, skin, and eyes. This article provides comprehensive information on diseases caused by sulfuric acid, targeting occupational health nurses and doctors.

2. Agent Causes the Disease

Exposure to sulfuric acid occurs primarily through inhalation of its vapors, ingestion, or dermal contact with the liquid. In industrial settings, sulfuric acid is used in processes such as chemical manufacturing, metal refining, and battery production, leading to potential occupational exposure.

3. Workers at Risk of This Disease

Several occupations and tasks put workers at higher risk of exposure to sulfuric acid, including:

  • Chemical Manufacturing Workers: Involved in the production of chemicals and fertilizers.
  • Petroleum Refinery Workers: Using sulfuric acid in the refining process.
  • Metal Processing Workers: Exposed during metal refining and pickling processes.
  • Battery Production Workers: Handling sulfuric acid in the manufacturing and recycling of batteries.
  • Laboratory Technicians: Using sulfuric acid in various research and testing applications.
  • Cleaning and Maintenance Workers: Using sulfuric acid-based cleaners and descalers.

4. Symptoms

Symptoms of diseases caused by sulfuric acid exposure can vary depending on the level and duration of exposure:

  • Acute Exposure: Symptoms include severe irritation and burns to the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract. Inhalation can cause coughing, difficulty breathing, and chest tightness. Ingestion can lead to severe gastrointestinal damage, including pain, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • Chronic Exposure: Long-term exposure can cause chronic respiratory problems such as bronchitis and pulmonary fibrosis. Chronic skin contact can lead to dermatitis and ulceration. Prolonged exposure to vapors can increase the risk of lung cancer.

5. Diagnosis

Diagnosing diseases caused by sulfuric acid involves a combination of clinical evaluation, occupational exposure assessment, and specific tests:

  • Medical History and Physical Examination: Detailed assessment of the patient's work history and symptoms.
  • Pulmonary Function Tests: To assess lung function and detect any obstructive or restrictive patterns.
  • Chest X-rays or CT Scans: Imaging to detect lung inflammation, fibrosis, or other damage.
  • Skin Examination: For signs of irritation, burns, or chronic dermatitis.
  • Endoscopy: To assess gastrointestinal damage if ingestion is suspected.

6. Treatment

Treatment for diseases caused by sulfuric acid focuses on managing symptoms and preventing further exposure:

  • Remove from Exposure: Immediate removal from the source of sulfuric acid exposure is crucial.
  • Symptomatic Treatment: Providing medications to manage respiratory symptoms, such as bronchodilators and corticosteroids. Topical treatments for skin burns and eye irrigation for ocular exposure.
  • Supportive Care: Including hydration, pain management, and monitoring of respiratory and gastrointestinal function.
  • Emergency Care: In cases of severe burns or ingestion, emergency medical treatment, including neutralizing agents and endoscopic procedures, may be necessary.
  • Long-term Monitoring: Regular follow-up to monitor lung function, skin health, and overall health status.

7. Prevention

Preventing diseases caused by sulfuric acid involves implementing strict control measures in the workplace:

  • Engineering Controls: Using local exhaust ventilation, enclosed processes, and proper maintenance of equipment to reduce airborne exposure to sulfuric acid vapors.
  • Work Practices: Implementing safe work practices such as proper handling and disposal of sulfuric acid-containing materials, and avoiding eating, drinking, or smoking in areas where sulfuric acid is used.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Providing and ensuring the use of appropriate respirators, protective clothing, gloves, and eye protection.
  • Health Surveillance: Regular health screenings, including pulmonary function tests and skin examinations, for workers exposed to sulfuric acid.
  • Education and Training: Informing workers about the hazards of sulfuric acid and safe work practices to minimize exposure.

By recognizing the hazards of sulfuric acid exposure and applying effective preventive strategies, occupational health professionals can substantially lower the occurrence of related illnesses and improve the overall health and safety of workers.

Workplace Exposure Limits:

  • OSHA: The legal airborne permissible exposure limit (PEL) is 1 mg/m3 averaged over an 8-hour workshift.
  • NIOSH: The recommended airborne exposure limit (REL) is 1 mg/m3 averaged over a 10-hour workshift.
  • ACGIH: The threshold limit value (TLV) is 0.2 mg/m3 (as the Thoracic fraction) averaged over an 8-hour workshift.