Understanding Lubricant Toxicity

Lubricant toxicity is no small matter. Although lubricants are used so commonly these days from large industrial machinery to simple home equipment, it is not to be shrugged off that they can be toxic to your health and the environment. Knowledge and understanding of these lubricants, how their toxicity may harm you and more importantly, how to protect yourself from them is key. 

All lubricants are formulated from a base oil. What starts from these base oils is then combined with additives and agents to create the desired product. Base oils can be broken down into five groups.

Group I : Acid Treated, Solvent-refined and Aromatic. Lubricants of Group I carry carcinogens that can be found in tar, coal and other oils. These impurities are left behind in the refining process and are considered toxic. 

Group II : Oils in this group have been tested to be mildly carcinogenic and can be eliminated by high temperature and pressure hydro processing. 

Group III : Base oils of this group undergo higher temperature hydrotreatment and have better oxidation stability. While some impurities remain in the oils, it is not categorized as carcinogenic for humans. 

Group IV : Group IV gets the synthetic label as it contains  polyalphaolefins in its base stock. The elimination of PAHs from the base stock is thanks to the intensive hydrogenation treatment.

Group V : Group V is also a synthetic oil as they have chemically engineered base stocks that remain unique to any either category mentioned above. It contains various types of esters of which phosphate ester has the largest impact on humans. Tests have proven that it is detrimental to human and animal health. 

To better protect oneself from these potentially toxic lubricants, it is vital that you pay attention to the respective lubricant’s material safety data sheet (MSDS). The sheet available for all lubricants has sections to determine the toxicity of the lubricant and the risks to humans, animals & the environment. Below are those sections for your knowledge. 

Section 1 – The identification section identifies the chemical on the MSDS as well as the recommended uses. It also provides essential contact information for the supplier.

Section 2 – Hazard(s) identification includes the chemical’s hazards and the appropriate warning information associated with those hazards.

Section 3 – The composition/information on ingredients section identifies the ingredient(s) included in the product, such as stabilizing additives and impurities. It also contains information on substances, mixtures and all chemicals where a trade secret is claimed.

Section 4 – The first-aid measures describe the initial care that should be given by untrained responders to an individual who has been exposed to the chemical.

Section 5 – The fire-fighting measures provide recommendations for fighting a fire caused by the chemical, including suitable extinguishing techniques, equipment and chemical hazards from fire.

Section 6 – The accidental release measures offer recommendations on the appropriate response to spills, leaks or releases, including containment and cleanup practices to prevent or minimize exposure to people, properties or the environment. This section may also include recommendations distinguishing between responses for large and small spills when the spill volume has a significant impact on the hazard.

Section 7 – The handling and storage section provides guidance on the safe handling practices and conditions for safe storage of chemicals, including incompatibilities.

Section 8 – The exposure controls/personal protection section indicates the exposure limits, engineering controls and personal protective equipment (PPE) measures that can be used to minimize worker exposure.

Section 9 – The physical and chemical properties section identifies physical and chemical properties associated with the substance or mixture.

Section 10 – The stability and reactivity section describe the chemical’s reactivity hazards and stability information. It is broken into three parts: reactivity, chemical stability and other.

Section 11 – The toxicological information identifies toxicological and health effects information or indicates that such data is not available. This includes routes of exposure, related symptoms, acute and chronic effects, and numerical measures of toxicity.

Section 12 – The ecological information provides information to evaluate the environmental impact of the chemical if it were released to the environment.

Section 13 – The disposal considerations offer guidance on proper disposal practices, recycling and reclamation of the chemical or its container, as well as safe handling practices.

Section 14 – The transport information includes classification information for shipping and transporting hazardous chemicals by road, air, rail or sea.

Section 15 – The regulatory information identifies the safety, health and environmental regulations specific for the product which are not indicated elsewhere on the MSDS.

Section 16 – The other information section indicates when the MSDS was prepared or when the last known revision was made. It might also state where the changes have been made to the previous version. You may wish to contact the supplier for an explanation of the changes.

As a practice, always create a barrier between yourself and the lubricant. Even mere gloves, breathing mask, safety glasses, a chemical resistant apron or not having exposed skin may prove to keep you out of harm’s way. Stay safe when handling lubricants.