Isocyanates are a group of highly reactive organic compounds that, when heated, easily become volatile and enter the atmosphere as a vapour.
Exposure to isocyanates mainly occurs through inhalation or direct contact with the skin or eyes.
Where possible you should not heat products containing isocyanates, or use other, safer products that don’t contain it.
If you have to work with products or materials that contain isocyanates you must:
- use ventilation
- isolate high exposure tasks, eg with spray booths or automated processes
- use the right personal protective equipment (PPE), eg respirators, overalls, safety goggles, chemical resistant clothing and gloves
- train workers to fit, use and maintain PPE
- have safety equipment available, eg eye wash and showers
- always follow the advice in safety data sheets and on product labels.
In the event of suspected exposure, call the Poisons Information Centre on 131 126.
Isocyanates are common components of polyurethane foams and two-pack spray coatings. They are used to provide a protective coating over a a variety of materials including cement, wood, fiberglass, steel and aluminium. Isocyanates are also used in manufactured materials including polyurethane foams, synthetic rubbers, coatings (including paints and varnishes), elastomers and plastics.
Occupations that are most at risk of exposure to isocyanates include:
- Spray painting/coating
- Auto industry (repair, manufacture and finishing)
- Manufacturing of synthetic rubbers, polyurethane foams, plastics and insulation
- Building installations
Heating isocyanate containing materials is likely to release isocyanates into the atmosphere. Activities such as hot wire cutting foams, welding through polyurethane pipe lagging, high temperature bonding using polyurethane sealants and hot removal of varnishes are activities that may lead to inhalation exposure to isocyanates. Sanding isocyanate containing materials such as paints, foams and plastics may also result in inhalation exposure from dust particles.
The potential for harm depends on concentration and duration of use. Common symptoms of short-term (acute) exposures include irritation of the nose, throat and eyes, irritation to the respiratory system including coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, gastrointestinal distress such as nausea and vomiting, and headaches. Direct contact with the skin or eyes can result in contact conjunctivitis, blistering, swelling and irritation.
Sensitisation can occur after high acute exposure, or prolonged exposure to lower concentrations of isocyanates. Sensitised workers may suffer allergic reactions including occupational asthma, dermatitis, hives and rashes at very low, or brief exposure to isocyanates. In addition to immune sensitisation, chronic exposure to isocyanates may cause liver and kidney disease, chronic lung damage and cancer.
Read the isocyanates technical fact sheet.