Pros and Cons of Isocyanates

Everyone comes into contact with a wide range of chemicals on a daily basis, many of which they may be unaware even exist. Some are completely benign and pose no harm. But many others may have adverse health affects. Until exposure to any of these chemicals causes a problem most people go about their day happily unaware.

A group of compounds known as isocyanates is a good example of chemicals that are in a lot of objects we use every day. Isocyanates are used in a wide variety of everyday objects, most notably certain paints and man-made clothing. These compounds react with other compounds that contain alcohol groups, to produce polyurethane polymers. These polymers have proven very helpful and are the base ingredients for polyurethane foams such as are found in furniture and bedding, thermoplastic elastomers, spandex fibers, polyurethane paints, and certain adhesives.

Isocyanates are increasingly being used to create polyurethane products used in the manufacture and repair of automobiles, in spray-insulation for homes and other buildings, special weather-and wear-resistant paints, and for industrial products used to protect a variety of materials including cement, fiberglass, aluminum, and wood. There are many benefits to the use of these compounds. Materials made from polyurethane can typically be thinner and more flexible than traditional materials, allowing them to be used in new and creative ways. Spray insulation made from polyurethane can be used to fill any kind of area regardless of the shape. Simply spray where desired. In comparison rolled insulation requires evenly spaced rafters or studs. And polyurethane spray insulation will fill and seal any existing holes, making it more energy efficient.

Parts made from polyurethane tend to last longer than those made from other materials. Polyurethane has better abrasion and impact resistance when compared to either rubber or plastic. Its load-bearing capabilities are comparable to those of cast steel. And, polyurethane products will hold up amazingly well against the damaging environmental effects of hot and cold weather.

Unfortunately these revolutionary products have a downside. Exposure to isocyanates can cause symptoms that range from mild to severe. They are a powerful irritant to mucous membranes, as well as to the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts. Exposure to vapors from chemicals that include these compounds can cause irritation to the mucous membranes and skin, and difficulty breathing. Touching products made from isocyanates can also cause skin irritation. Isocyanates are known carcinogens, and long-term or excessive exposure creates a risk of developing cancer, such as lung or skin cancer. However the main adverse health effect experienced by people who work at places with constant exposure to polyurethane products, such as painting or furniture manufacture, has been acute asthma or other lung problems.