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Degreasers are convenient for quickly removing oil, tar, wax, resin, grease, and soils from surfaces without the need to scrub and wipe. Traditional chemical-based solvents contain highly toxic chemicals that can result in serious pollution to the environment and cause health issues in people. This article answers the question, “Is degreaser toxic?”

What exactly is a degreaser? In industrial maintenance facilities, degreasers remove contamination that results from metal fabrication, stamping, and assembly. Degreasers are also used in manufacturing, transportation maintenance, refineries, and many other heavy-duty facilities.

In facilities maintenance, degreasers strip contaminants from surfaces that include machinery, tools, and hard surfaces, including flooring.

Degreasers are solvents that dissolve water-insoluble substances and are commonly known as maintenance cleaners, precision cleaners, or carburetor and brake cleaners. Most of these products are aerosols with tube delivery systems that forcefully remove contaminants from small spaces.

Oil-based degreasers are usually toxic and flammable, quickly evaporate, and pollute the atmosphere. Minute amounts of corrosive degreasers can damage paint, surfaces, harm people, animals, and aquatic life when released into the planet’s surface or groundwater.

Health hazards with corrosive degreasers include chemical burns from eye or skin contact, loss of full-body control, respiratory ailments, cancer, and more.

The compounding effects of environmental and health hazards have caused maintenance facilities to evaluate cleaning performance risks versus benefits of toxic chemicals found in degreasers and seek safer, more cost-efficient alternatives. Safe Degreasing is No Accident: Cleaning and Degreasing for People and Planet

Toxic Chemicals That Are Commonly Used 

North America and Europe are leading the world’s trend in replacing degreasers that contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), specifically in the automotive industry.

According to the EPAs website, “VOCs are common groundwater contaminants that are found in industrial solvents, such as trichloroethylene; fuel oxygenates, such as methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE); or by-products produced by chlorination in water treatment, such as chloroform. VOCs are often components of petroleum fuels, hydraulic fluids, paint thinners, and dry-cleaning agents.

Products containing VOCs include paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions.

Chemicals such as N-Propyl bromide (nPB) is a solvent that is classified as a VOC. This solvent is known as a carrier in adhesives, is used for vapor degreasing, metal cleaning, and dry-cleaning.”

Concentrations of VOCs are higher indoors and are linked to respiratory illness. Other harmful chemicals in traditional degreasers include acetone, diethanolamine (DEA), diethylene glycol monobutyl ether (DGME), fluorinated and chlorinated solvents, glycol ethers, ketone, methyl ethyl, monoethanolamine (MEA), morpholine, perchloroethylene (Perc), trichloroethylene (TCE), and more.

Although some chemicals found in degreasers are non-flammable, exposure causes dizziness, confusion, headaches, nosebleeds, loss of body control, cancer, kidney and liver problems, reproductive issues, and skin and vision damage.

Degreaser Inhalation, Skin, and Eye Contact 

With cleaner and degreaser use, personal protective equipment (PPE) is required, and safety equipment such as eyewash stations can be necessary for specific work areas.

Although indoor ventilation systems may be in use, drowsiness, dizziness, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, and vertigo are reported with inhaling hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), and misuse of chemicals can lead to asphyxiation or death.

Primary concerns with any cleaner or degreaser are inhalation and contact with the skin or eyes. Permanent eye damage and chemical burns on the skin are documented with highly alkaline degreasers.

Eye industry experts state that chemical eye burns can occur when the eye comes into contact with a solid, liquid, or gas chemical. The severity of the burn depends on the chemical, as well as the amount that comes into contact with the eye. The vast majority of burns are treatable, but all should be taken seriously. Vision loss is indicative of a severe chemical eye burn.

Chemical eye burn symptoms include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Eye redness
  • Eye irritation
  • Eye pain
  • The feeling of foreign objects in the eye
  • Inability to keep your eye open
  • Swelling of the eyelid(s)

In addition to causing harm to people, corrosive degreasers damage surfaces of inanimate objects.

What Does Degreaser Damage? 

Aluminum is a lightweight metal often used in automotive parts that oxidize with harsh chemicals found in chemical-based degreasers.

Other objects that can dry and crack with traditional degreasers include rubber and silicone; seals and gaskets tend to shrink or swell with exposure. These may return to their original shape or can be permanently damaged.

For paint, petroleum-based degreasers are known to create damage resulting in stains and discoloration.

Solvents are also harsh on hard plastics, such as ABS, polycarbonate, and acrylics.

Testing a degreaser on a surface is recommended before applying to large areas.

Are There Degreasers That Are Considered Safe? 

Despite all of the risks associated with traditional toxic degreasers, there is good news.

Advances in aqueous (water-based) degreasers that clean and are environmentally responsible are safer for people who use them and the environment.

Non-damaging aqueous degreasers used in heavy-duty to light applications emulsify surface contaminants equally to traditional toxic degreasers without harming people or the planet.

Mitigating environmental risks has cost-saving benefits with aqueous degreasers designed for wastewater regulations. These products eliminate the need for wastewater hazardous materials processing, handling, transport, storage, and labeling.

Also, concentrated aqueous degreasers that can be diluted for specific use cases provide significant value.

Advanced aqueous degreasers are non-toxic, non-flammable, do not carry inhalation risks, and contain low or no VOCs.

Aqueous degreaser products are available in traditional trigger spray bottles or bulk quantities for batch, immersion, ultrasonic, and vapor cleaning systems.

Industries, businesses, and consumers are shifting from traditional chemical-based degreasers that carry a variety of risks. Many new non-toxic, water-based degreasers are now available to get the job done while protecting people who use them and the environment.

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