Handling a sulfuric acid spill is typically a multi-step process that includes controlling the exposure of yourself and other nearby people, ensuring the area is ventilated, and isolating the spill to prevent it from spreading.
Large spills often need to be cleaned up by professional hazmat crews due to how hazardous they are, but sometimes small splashes or minor puddles can be handled independently, often with baking soda or other compounds that will help the spill clump together.
However, this still requires great caution and strict adherence to protocol. Acid spills are very serious and usually need to be treated as such in order for everyone involved to stay safe and well.
Ensure personal safety
The first thing you need to do after a spill is assess the situation, paying particular attention to whether the acid got on yourself or anyone else nearby. You should check your clothes and skin because sulfuric acid can easily eat or burn both. Clothing that has been splashed should be removed immediately and exposed skin or eyes washed for at least 15 minutes with cool, clean water to rinse and dilute the acid. Not doing this before moving on can result in disfiguring burns and extraordinary pain.
Importance of Ventilation
After checking yourself and everyone around you, it’s a good idea to make sure the room with the spill is as well ventilated as possible. If there are windows in the room, be sure to open them; making sure the doors are open will also help bring in fresh air from outside. If you’re in a lab with a fume hood or air scavenging system, it might be wise to turn it on.
However, most experts advise against forcing the air to circulate with ordinary fans or air conditioners unless you also have a source of fresh air from outside. Sulfuric acid fumes can be dangerous to breathe, and you shouldn’t spread them farther than necessary within an enclosed space.
Assess the Situation
The next thing to do is take a good look at the sulfuric acid spill, noting how large the area it covers and the approximate volume present. You may be able to figure this out fairly easily if you know what caused the spill, such as a dropped glass or burst container, but slow leaks and more mysterious pools of acid may require a little more guesswork. What you’re basically trying to do is figure out if the spill is too big to clean up on your own.
The fumes from sulfuric acid can be fatal, so if there is a large pool it is usually best to call a hazmat crew and evacuate the area. It’s usually not worth risking breathing problems and possible burns when professional help is available. Most community health offices have hazmat crews trained to deal with substances like sulfuric acid, and some firefighters can help too.
Small spills are easier to clean up independently, but safety is still an important consideration. It is important to wear protective clothing before approaching the area, i.e. clothing that the acid cannot burn. Mask, goggles, gloves and an acid resistant apron are usually the minimum standard.
In most cases it’s not a good idea to simply soak up acid spills as the liquid is often able to eat through rags and cleaning rags. A better idea is to start the cleanse by pouring baking soda on the affected area. This is included in most acid spill kits, but if one of these kits isn’t available, regular baking soda, soda ash, or kitty litter usually has the same effect.
Baking soda is a good choice because it will absorb the sulfuric acid and cause it to go mouldy, which in turn will make it easier to collect and dispose of safely. However, you shouldn’t pick up lumps right away; while the powder will neutralize the acid, there is often some bubbling that a chemical splash can cause if you don’t give it time to work.
Once the lumps have dried, sweep them up and discard them as chemical waste. The area should be washed with water and more baking soda to collect any remaining acid.
This would need to be repeated several times to completely remove all residue, and it’s usually a good idea to stay out of the general area for a few days just to be sure everything has dried.