Condensed from the author's article of the same title, which appeared in the Binders' Guild Newsletter XI (3), p. 6-8. Mr. Dorsey is also the editor of the BGN. Reprinted with permission.
...My department at the Measurement Group is responsible for the production of MSDS sheets for our products; and I would like to discuss the subject.
The Measurements Group makes devices for experimental stress analysis, and our primary product is strain gages. To be used, a strain gage must be bonded to the structure to be analyzed, and then must be protected from the environment because it is an extremely delicate electrical device. The result is that we sell many cleaning, conditioning, bonding, soldering, and coating chemicals and compounds. The job of testing these materials and certifying their performance is within the scope of my laboratory. So, we became "users" and are responsible for maintaining a complete set of material safety data sheets. Our company must also be responsible for keeping records of every drop of "hazardous" material that we buy, use, sell, or pay to have disposed. Am example of what this means: we use about one gallon of ethylene glycol per year. We must keep a log book of where every drop goes. At the same time most of us use it freely in our automobiles, etc., in much larger quantities as an antifreeze; and dispose of old stuff as suits our fancy. (I have two cars, a truck, and a tractor, and use about eight gallons, replaced every two years. No one is monitoring my use of ethylene glycol.) Don't get me wrong, it may be a very nasty material. It is suspected to be dangerous to fetuses, and there may be a day soon when it is completely banned. But does the way we are going about controlling it make any sense?
The purpose of the MSDS is noble: it is supposed to warm people about the dangers they face, and what they should do if there is some sort of accident. But let's take a look at what really happens.
As an example I have selected Duco cement, because most of you are probably familiar with it. It has been a useful cement for at least 50 years. Duco is a viscous, nearly clear fluid. It bonds mechanically by means of solvent evaporation to a fairly rigid plastic. With it one can get a reasonable good bond where there can be a mechanical gripping such as with wood and leather. In my opinion, the hazards in using it are not great. The solvent is flammable and it should be kept away from flames, but it can be safely used in most normal environments where all kinds of electrical apparatuses are in use. The solvents may attack some plastics and cause softening or crazing. The solvent is slightly narcotic, so the material should be used with some ventilation or in a large open area. Solvent inhalation should be avoided. (We are probably all aware that some individuals found that they could get a "high" from inhaling the fumes, and Duco was taken off the market for several years. It is back again with a somewhat modified solvent.) Duco can irritate the eyes and users should keep fingers away from the eyes. (That's true of most things anyhow.) It is slightly narcotic on the skin. Normally there is no perceptible danger from this. In very rare cases Duco may cause a skin rash.
Now let's look at what the safety data sheet would show: Flammable - use only in spark protected area. Volatile solvent - use only with respirator. Severe eye irritation - wear safety- goggles at all times when using. Can cause severe skin irritation - wear protective clothing over all exposed areas and plastic gloves on hands. There would be more on ingestion, calling doctors etc. Now who on earth would use it if they had to comply with all that?!
It is easy to understand why ail of this has happened if we look at what has been going on in the courts. People sue for anything, and often win. Even if the hammer says right on the handle that it must not be used on rocks, that does not protect the manufacturer when it is so used and the pounder is injured. The MSDS is a definite help if he is dragged into court.
This is all pretty sad because the correct information would be very useful. One of the main problems is that there is no difference in the MSDS regardless of the amount of the product we are using. Duco in 5-gallon, open tubs would represent some potentially serious problems; but not in a $2.00 tube.
The unfortunate part of all this is that we will no longer be able to get some products that are relatively safe. My company used to make a brittle lacquer that was quite useful in determining where the main stresses were in a loaded structure. The product was over 50 years old and had never caused any problems, at least that we know of. Still, we stopped making it. One large aerospace company has told us that nothing they use for installation of strain gages is legal any longer.
Meanwhile, the general consumer buys "household" products that are far worse than almost anything a strain gages or bookbinder would want to use.
Don't misunderstand; there are some terrible cases of abuse--plating baths with cyanide that killed unwarned workers, for example--but those companies tend to ignore ail this anyway. Companies like mine who try to follow all laws and rules usually don't need them in the first place. To correct a lot of this there would have to be: 1) changes in the laws and in the attitudes of juries, and 2) government regulations for the storage, use, and disposal of chemicals that are reasonable and not crippling, [that] take into account the amount that we are dealing with. For now, the outlook is bleak, and it will affect us all, sooner or later, if it hasn't already. It will be a particular problem for those who employ anybody. From the bookbinding point of view the good news is that most of what we use does not appear to be very dangerous.