Quackery and the SDS (formerly known as MSDS)

Ever wonder what's in that cleaning fluid? Ken Follett shed some light on chemical formulas, safety data sheets, and who reads labels anyway.
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Ever wonder what's in that cleaning fluid? Ken Follett shed some light on chemical formulas, safety data sheets, and who reads labels anyway.

What interests me here is a recent online conversation in which a few individuals were trying to make comparisons through the chemical nomenclature found on Safety Data Sheets to sort out differences in products that are available for the treatment and cleaning of gravestones.

As there are chemists in the world, so also are there experts in industrial health and handling of chemicals in the workplace. There are also experts in safety regulation and others versed in the format and language of Safety Data Sheets. I am not one of any of the above. I am a guy who has spent a career in construction, which means hours of relating with people who know much less than they think that they know. This is not meant as a complaint, it is the way of the world outside of any classroom, where information and misinformation are constantly in competition with each other.

cleaning supplies

A portion of the author’s mostly organic chemistry set.

I had a business partner who would show up at a project progress meeting with an unlabeled bottle of a milky white liquid. He would tell everyone it was his secret formula to make stones look pretty. This was before the TSA started to screen bottles of fluids. It always surprised me how many architects went along with him. But from the example of my partner I learned that the world is full of slop-sink chemists, the sort of American tinkerers who watch too many secret-soap infomercials on cable and then go down into the basement and mix different store-bought stuff in the slop sink, hoping to come up with a rags-to-riches formula. Having somehow found enough time on his hands, my partner burned holes in the sink enamel.

Mop & Glo® mixed with apple cider vinegar works wonders. It even smells scientific.

Dr. James Cook Ayer, based in Lowell, MA, was an enterprising capitalist in the patent pharmaceutical business in the nineteenth century. He did so well that he built his own railroad from Lowell to Boston. Here is an alleged formula for Ayer’s Sarsaparilla:

fluid extract Sarsaparilla …. 3 oz.

“ “ Stillingia ……… 3 oz.

“ “ Yellow dock … 2 oz.

“ “ May apple …. 2 oz.

sugar ………………………………. 1 oz.

iodide potassium ……………. 90 gr.

iodide iron ………………… …. 10 gr.

Source: The Golden Age of Quackery, Stewart H. Holbrook, The Macmillan Company, 1959, p. 49.

It was not so much that Dr. Ayer’s Sarsparilla concoction cured more ills than any other. It was not demonstrably superior as a blood purifier to Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparillian Renovating Resolvent, or Bristol’s Sarsaparilla, or Dr. Townsend’s (A Wonder & A Blessing), or Dr. Easterly’s (Six Times Stronger), nor would it have done as a better tonic to cure scrofula, dyspepsia, gout, rheumatism, general debility, liver complaint, dropsy, gravel, female complaints, syphilis or venereal coughs. It was that Dr. Ayer invested large sums of capital in advertising and marketing at a time when a recipe such as that above would have been considered common sense scientific information by the uninformed. Considering of the extent to which every human on the planet was at that time uninformed it is an historically admirable lack of knowledge to look back on.

I once worked with a fellow who, the minute a chemist would begin to explain how cement and lime work on a chalk board, my friend would fall asleep. Chemical phobia is similar to what makes those who with a deep-seated fear of flying pass out as the plane moves down the runway toward take-off. It does not help anyone on a work project when there is a problem and a PhD scientist is sent out by the manufacturer to talk to the project foreman.

For the most part, we all need the complicated portions of the world simplified, because any one of us can only hold so much in the way of details. So, often enough, science gets translated into an explanation that may contain less fact and more fiction. But, hopefully, a good fiction that helps to keep workers from hurting themselves by doing something dangerous.

There are a few things that need to be understood in the vernacular in regard to Safety Data Sheets.

First off, the SDS is not by any means designed or intended to be used for comparison of products. Their intent is to provide safety information for those who use and are long-term exposed to various chemicals in a work environment. What this means, to repeat, is that an SDS provides safety information for workers who consistently use and are exposed to chemicals in their work. They also indicate what is to be done if there is an accident.

Ayer's Lion

Ayer’s Lion, Lowell Cemetery, Lowell, MA

One time we were working at the Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, NJ, when in the nearby “chemistry” building an unknown, unlabeled white powdery substance was spilled. A temporary HazMat panic set in before the scrub crew arrived. We never did find out what it was.

According to OSHA, any chemical formulation used on a worksite needs to be accompanied with the immediate availability of a Safety Data Sheet. Such is not the case for non-work-related uses, such as household use, or to spray around on your back patio to rid unsightly ketchup stains from limestone. From a big-box or your local hardware your purchase does not come with an SDS. If you are curious, though, you can usually find it online.

So the goop-in-a-bottle that you use to remove polyurethane glue from your fingernails may be killing you slowly, or it may not, and you may never know. Unless you are curious.

Often in a subtle manner, beyond the standardized format, what is said on an SDS is pretty much up to whatever the manufacturer of the product wants it to say. Products are proprietary and do not right out tell anyone what is in them. And this is for a reason.

In general, the manufacturer wants to say as little as possible, but just enough, because, no surprise, their competitors may pick up on whatever they say and then try to reverse engineer a competing product. This works out just fine if, say, a manufacturer uses dimethyl-tryptophan-brownish-amino-glyceride in a 5% solution and that is what you misread on the SDS as being the “magic” ingredient and… hold on, it is coming… their rival uses the same stuff in a 6% solution. It says here right on their SDS. Why, obviously, the rival’s product must be the better of the two products even if neither of them works very well for what you may be trying to accomplish. Note to self: I used this stuff to build a balsawood model airplane and it simply would not fly.

What is important, though, with an SDS is the obvious word SAFETY. A problem with anything written is that people do not read. (Hopefully you got this far and can argue it out with me in comments.) The few individuals who actually read instructions should be commended and given extra perks. Which brings up a conversation about “idiot buckets,” where you measure out the exact quantity of water to add to the mix then punch a hole in the side of the bucket so that the bucket cannot be overfilled.

Quite often construction workers do not read. Their bosses often do not read. And when any of them do read, they more than often have no clue what they are reading. Even the genealogically inclined do-it-yourselfer going off to save an ancestor’s grave marker may not read, or comprehend when they do. It goes well with the common stereotype that real men (or women) in construction never read the instructions. Seriously, find and read an SDS. We cannot always expect the government to do it for us.

It used to be common enough for a worker to stand in an unventilated pit with strange heady aromas wafting off the black mastic waterproofing that they were applying to the concrete wall. This is like sniffing glue only much more seriously rad. Gets really exciting if they smoke a cigarette, a practice more and more banned from construction sites, for more than personal health reasons. It was also common for the workers to get the black stuff on their arms, on their bellies, in their hair and then try to clean it off with caustic solvents that stripped layers of their skin off. I had a friend who did all of this.

Or a fellow using a heavy-duty paint stripper, in a five-gallon unit, might stick his arms in it up to the elbow. Keep in mind that if it can remove paint, then it can probably remove you.

Postscript: One morning, while at work on this article, I read about Dr. Ayer and the stone lion at his grave, so I spent the better part of a day driving to Lowell, MA, in order to get a picture for this article. Along the way I stopped at Walden Pond and had a nice walk.