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Chemical eye burns

The eyes can be injured by exposure to some chemicals, including household cleaning products.

Chemical exposure, such as a product splashing into the eye, should be taken seriously to help avoid possible lasting damage to the eye.

First aid for chemical eye burns involves chemicals being washed out of the eyes using clean water or eyewash for at least 10-15 minutes.

Seek medical advice for chemical eye burns. Let medical staff know about the chemical by reading the label.

Always follow chemical and cleaning product instructions and wear eye protection where recommended.

Chemical eye burn causes

Most chemical eye injuries occur at work. Industries use a variety of chemicals daily. However, chemical injuries also frequently occur at home from cleaning products or other household products. These injuries can be just as dangerous as those at work and must be treated seriously and immediately.

Chemical burns to the eye can be divided into three categories: alkali burns, acid burns and irritants.

The acidity or alkalinity, called the pH, of a substance is measured on a scale from one to 14, with seven indicating a neutral substance. Substances with pH values less than seven are acids, while numbers higher than seven are alkaline. The higher or lower the number, the more acidic or basic a substance is and the more damage it can cause.

Alkali burns are the most dangerous. Alkalis or chemicals that have a high pH penetrate the surface of the eye and can cause severe injury to both the external structures like the cornea and the internal structures like the lens. In general, more damage occurs with higher pH chemicals.

  • Common alkali substances contain the hydroxides of ammonia, caustic soda, potassium, magnesium and lime.
  • Substances you may have at home that contain these chemicals include cleaning products (ammonia), drain cleaners (caustic soda), oven cleaners, plaster or cement (lime) and fertilisers.

Acid burns result from chemicals with a low pH and are usually less severe than alkali burns because they do not penetrate into the eye as readily as alkaline substances. The exception is a hydrofluoric acid burn, which is as dangerous as an alkali burn. Acids usually damage only the very front of the eye. However, they can cause serious damage to the cornea and also may result in blindness.

  • Common acids causing eye burns include sulphuric acid, sulphurous acid, hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, acetic acid, chromic acid and hydrofluoric acid.
  • Substances you have at home that may contain these chemicals include glass polish (hydrofluoric acid), vinegar (acetic acid) and nail polish remover (acetic acid). A car battery can explode and cause a sulphuric acid burn.

Irritants are substances that have a neutral pH and tend to cause more discomfort to the eye than actual damage.

  • Most household detergents fall into this category.
  • Pepper spray is also an irritant. It can cause significant pain but usually does not affect vision and rarely causes any damage to the eye.
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