How to manage and prevent harmful chemical exposures to the eye
By: Tony Burda and Robert Redwood ( 4th Year Medical Student at RUMC)
When you think of the type calls received by a Poison Control Center, you probably think of poisonings such as a child tasting rat poison or eating several handfuls of chewable vitamins or taking several bites of a house plant. Yet, in 2008 over 113,000 calls were placed to US Poison Centers regarding ocular (eye) exposures to chemicals alone!
Ocular exposure incidents can occur when a child accidentally squirts or spills cleaning products, or an adult splashes or sprays products towards his/or her face while in use. Some profession of workers can contaminate themselves via occupational accidents, or multiple exposures can occur via the release of environmental hazardous materials. A study published in a toxicology journal found that the most common chemical exposures to the eye were as follows:
- personal care and medicinal products, e.g. perfumes, lotions, body soaps/shampoos, creams and ointments
- hydrocarbon solvents , e.g. paint thinner, charcoal lighter fluid, furniture polishes, gasoline
- hypochlorites, e.g. bleach
- strong acids and alkali (bases), e.g. toilet bowl cleaner, oven cleaners, drain cleaners, rust removers, swimming pool chlorinators
Depending on the substance involved and the duration of exposure, injury to the eye may range from mild temporary irritation to severe and even permanent vision loss. Initial symptoms may include a stinging or burning sensation and squinting of the eyelids. Damage to the cornea, a jelly-like membrane that protects the eye, may be evident by the following systems:
- scratchy “eyelash” sensation while blinking,
- marked redness,
- blurred vision,
- discomfort while looking at bright lights,
- and pain.
* Damage extending to deeper structures in the eye may result in permanent visual impairment.
Of the myriad of household cleaners, solvents, pesticides, etc. found in the average home, the most dangerous products associated with significant eye injury are those classified as strongly acidic or alkaline (i.e. those with very low pH or very high pH). Examples of these products include: automatic dishwasher detergent, drain openers, hair relaxers, hair perm solutions, hair removers, lime, mildew stain removers, oven cleaners, rust removers, and toilet bowl cleaners.
Immediate measures to perform if a chemical splash to the eye occurs are the following:
- Remove contact lenses immediately.
- Flood the eyes with room temperature water for 15-20 minutes. If the chemical is known to be strongly acidic or alkaline, a minimum of 30 minutes is advised.
- With small children, a helpful tip for irrigating the eye is to wrap the child’s head in a towel, position the child on the floor or a secure table, then gently pour room temperature water across the eye from the bridge of the nose out.
- Do NOT apply over the counter or prescription eye drops or ointments (i.e. drops that remove redness). Also do not use eye cups.
- Consult the Illinois Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 regarding any eye exposure for assessment and additional recommendations.
Some simple common sense steps to prevent chemical injury to the eye in the home and in the workplace as described by the National Safety Council (NSC) and the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) are summarized as follows:
- In the home
- Keep hazardous materials out of the reach of children and under lock and key if necessary.
- Leave all chemicals in their original containers.
- Never heat caustic chemicals as this can create irritating vapors or splashes from boiling.
- Pour chemicals into containers slowly and from a short distance to minimize splashing.
- Wear protective eyewear (face shields or goggles with side protection).
- In the workplace
- Know the potential hazards to eye safety at the workplace.
- Eliminate those hazards before starting work.
- Use proper and effective eyewear (face shields or goggles with side protection).
- Provide training and education for everyday eye safety tips.
OSHA estimates that 90% of eye injuries could be prevented if proper protective eyewear was worn. This gives credence to the old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” So please use household and workplace chemicals wisely and safely, but should an accident occur, the professional staff at the Illinois Poison Center is there to help, 1-800-222-1222. Everybody can say, “Aye!” to that.
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