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Published: Sunday, 10/5/2003

Computer can tell you if chemicals could hurt

What's in it? What's the right way to use it? Can it hurt somebody?

People have asked those questions ever since humans began making concoctions to help with everyday tasks like cleaning and controlling pests.

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics inside the pyramids gave some of the first reliable information about safe use of various chemicals. Some scientists regard those 4,000-year-old inscriptions as the roots of a modern idea called “risk communication.”

That's a fancy term for providing accurate information about health and environmental risks, so people can make good decisions about their own well-being. Many common consumer products can be harmful if misused. And consumers constantly make decisions on whether to buy such products.

Answering the questions, and making informed decisions, is surprisingly easy -despite the huge number of products now available.

Information on safe use and handling of thousands of common chemical products has been available for 20 years in so-called Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS).

These fact sheets, developed by manufacturers, are mainstays in industrial workplaces and academic laboratories where toxic chemicals are stored and used. MSDS long have been available at such places, assuring workers access to information on occupational health risks.

The Internet has made MSDS for thousands of products available instantly to anyone who can get online. Just keyboard “MSDS” into a search engine or go directly to gateways to MSDS collections like http://msds.pdc.cornell.edu/msdssrch.asp, http://hazard.com/msds/, and http://www.msdsprovider.net/Site/msdsprovider.nsf/about.

Using those sites and regular MSDSs can be tough going for non-scientists.

Scientists often think in terms of the technical chemical names of ingredients that make up products. Consumers often are concerned about the effects of brand name products that usually contain several different chemicals.

One consumer-friendly option is the Household Products Database maintained by the National Library of Medicine (NLM). Search for “Household Products Database” or go directly to http://householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov.

It links more than 4,000 brands of common household products to MSDS health-effects information. Products range from air fresheners and antiperspirants to varnish and weed killer. The database is designed to answer questions like:

What chemical ingredients are in a specific brand? What health problems can the ingredients cause? How much is harmful? What's the first aid treatment is somebody eats or drinks the stuff? What's the manufacturer's contact information?

Sometimes, answers from the database can mean peace of mind and save an expensive trip to the hospital emergency department.

If a child licks a finger coated with dishwasher detergent, for instance, a parent can use the database to access first aid information for the specific brand. Depending on the brand, first aid could simply involve drinking a glass of water or milk.

The listings make it very clear when emergency medical help is essential. Nobody, of course, should waste time fiddling with the database in an obvious emergency.

Consumers can also use the database to scan the hazards of several different brands and buy one that seems safest.



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