Finding out about hazardous substances

It’s a long time ago now, but when I was a young occupational hygienist working in a large in-house department employed by a major manufacturer, our boss used to encourage people to visit the department to find out about what we did. He always used to start his tour at our comprehensive library of books, journals and other publications, pointing out that “you’re only as good as your information sources”. I think he was right. Occupational hygienists deal with a large range of occupational hazards, particularly chemicals. We need to know about their harmful effects, how to sample for them and what exposure limits are applicable. It just isn’t possible to memorise every fact about every chemical we might encounter. Of course, most hygienists over the course of time will tend to become familiar substances they come across regularly. Even then it can be dangerous to rely too much on memory. Knowledge is constantly moving forward and it’s very easy to become out of date. So it’s important to have good sources of information to hand.

Twenty or thirty years ago we largely had to rely on hard copy sources such as books and journals. It wasn’t so easy to move these around with you and they could become out of date fairly quickly. Things have moved on a lot since then with the advent of the internet. Comprehensive information can be obtained over the web which can be readily accessed on the move via mobile phones and tablet computers. And there’s more chance that it will reflect the current state of knowledge.

Of course, there’s a lot of un-validated information on the Web, much of it of dubious quality, so it’s important to use proper, credible sources. The websites of Regulatory bodies such as the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and National Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are always good places to start. There’s also some good databases provided free of charge by the US National Library of Medicine (NLM).

The following are some websites that I use regularly to find information on chemical hazards :

Information on the effects of hazardous substances

TOXNET – this is a suite of data bases including :

  • TOXLINE (a bibliographic database providing details and abstracts from articles in journals).
  • HSDB, providing comprehensive details on a large number of substances – almost like very comprehensive safety data sheets.
  • ChemIDplus – a database of over 370,000 chemicals  providing details such as synonyms, and structure and toxicity test data. It also includes links to the other databases.
  • CCRIS – Carcinogenicity and mutagenicity test results for over 8,000 chemicals.
  • DART) – References to developmental and reproductive toxicology literature.

WISER – although primarily designed to provide information for people responding to hazardous material incidents, WISER includes very useful information chemical and physical characteristics and human health data. It’s available to use via the web but there are also versions that can be downloaded and installed on PCs, iPhones, iPads and iPod Touch, Android devices, Windows Mobile devices, and BlackBerry devices.

NIOSH Documentation for Immediately Dangerous To Life or Health Concentrations (IDLHs) – this database lists the atmospheric concentration of substances that present an immediate threat to life or would cause irreversible or delayed adverse health effects or would interfere with an individual’s ability to escape from a dangerous atmosphere.

International Chemical Safety Cards (ICSC) – a data base of summary data sheets intended to provide essential safety and health information on chemicals in a clear and concise way

NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards – a quick reference guide giving brief details on acute and chronic effects and other information


NIOSH Manual of Analytical Methods – all the NIOSH methods are available as pdf files to view or download. Although the bulk of the documents are devoted to the analytical procedures, they also include details on the sampling method – collection medium and device and recommendations on sample flow rate and volume.

Methods for the Determination of Hazardous Substances (MDHS) – pdf files of the HSE’s standard sampling and analytical methods.

GESTIS – Analytical methods – a German database that contains validated methods for 123 substances from various EU member states

Exposure Limits

EH40 – the list of UK Workplace Exposure Limits can be downloaded as a pdf file from here

GESTIS – International limit values for chemical agents – a German database which includes occupational exposure limits for over 15000 hazardous substances from various EU member states, Canada (Québec), Japan, Switzerland, and the United States as of January 2011. It’s also available as an app for iPhones and iPads.

HSE Publications

HSE publications  can be read on-line or downloaded from here.

What information sources do you regularly refer to?


Published by ms6282

I'm a consultant and trainer specialising in the recognition, evaluation and control of health hazards in the workplace. I'm based in the North West of England, but am willing to travel (almost) anywhere

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