How To Read a Safety Data Sheet - Demystifying Safety Data Sheets to Find The Green Yachting Products
As the yachting industry has become more and more aware of the need for a change in how they approach the need to better care for the environment, more and more companies have started to make real and token steps in the direction of sustainability. Some are doing this because they genuinely believe it is the right thing to do and some are just looking to cash in on eco-friendly cred. Whether intentional or unintentional green washing has very much become a part of the industry. What actually is sustainability? What does it mean? And, how do we know whether the product we’re using is actually better for the environment than others on the market? Knowing which sustainable boat cleaning products are truly sustainable can be confusing.
In an excellent article by Sara Ventiera, “Shades of Green,” in the most recent edition of Dockwalk, Sara discusses greenwashing and cleaning products with Seastainability Yachting founder Gemma Harris. They discuss how buzz phrases such as “natural”, “all natural” and “plant based” can be misleading and have made reading cleaning product labels confusing. Even some naturally derived ingredients can be toxic in some forms to marine life.
They go on to discuss how eco certifications can be misleading too citing the example of America’s EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) Safer Choice certification. The certification has been given to products that actually contain ingredients that known to be harmful to marine life. It’s for this reason that as a company we have taken the decision to stay away from eco certifications in the past.
Packaging can offer hints as to whether a product contains harmful ingredients. For example, any product that says “caution,” “warning”, “danger” or more obviously “poison” and “harmful to aquatic life” are clear warning signs. However these labels and warning symbols can be broad with some of the same warning labels covering both products that are very mild to those that are extremely harmful. Sometimes there is very little on the packaging at all.
More in depth clues to how sustainable a boat cleaning product is can often be found within the safety data sheets of the product where the product's toxicity has to be labeled. Thus knowing what the warning signs are, quite literally, in the safety data sheets is part of the key to understanding how sustainable the product is. But, what is a safety data sheet and how do you read and interpret them? We explore this a little further below.
A safety data sheet—or SDS or MSDS (Marine Safety Data Sheet) is a document prepared by chemical manufacturers for any chemical product. A safety data sheet will include information about each chemical, covering the physical and environmental hazards, precautions for safe handling, storage, and transportation of the chemical, and more.
A chemical is any substance that has a defined composition. In other words, a chemical is always made up of a consistent recipe or the same elements each time. Chemicals can be natural and occur naturally in nature and some are manufactured, for example chlorine (used for bleaching fabrics or in swimming pools).
A safety data sheet will contain 16 sections that will run through everything from what the chemical and what it’s intended use is to the safety, health, and environmental regulations specific to the product.
The United Nations created The Globally Harmonized System or GHS standards for SDS formats and It is currently in Revision 7. However it is down to each country as to which revision they want to use and so there is no true single format for SDS across different countries and each country can have additional or less legislation relating to the chemical. This can lead to a difference in the information provided in different products the SDS.
Generally however most SDS will follow some form of the GHS standards. We’ve broken down the format of the GHS SDS below and what each of the sections of the SDS contain.
- Section 1 - identifies the chemical on the SDS as well as its intended use. It also provides the essential contact information of the supplier.
- Section 2 - outlines the hazards of the chemical with appropriate warning information.
- Section 3 - identifies the ingredient(s) of the chemical product identified on the SDS, including impurities and stabilising additives.
- Section 4 - describes the initial treatment protocol for untrained responders to incidents of chemical exposure.
- Section 5 - provides recommendations for fighting a fire caused by the chemical if applicable
- Section 6 - details the appropriate response to chemical spills, leaks, or releases, including containment, and cleanup to prevent or minimise exposure to people, property, or the environment.
- Section 7 - provides guidance on the safe handling practices and conditions for safe storage of chemicals.
- Section 8 - lists chemical exposure limits, engineering controls, and personal protective measures that can be used to minimise worker exposure. For example whether gloves and goggles should be used when handling the chemical.
- Section 9 - identifies physical and chemical properties associated with the product.
- Section 10 - describes the reactivity hazards of the chemical and chemical stability information. This section is broken into three parts: reactivity, chemical stability, and other.
- Section 11 - identifies toxicological and health effects info, if applicable
- Section 12 - explains the environmental impact of a chemical(s) if released to the environment.
- Section 13 - covers proper disposal, recycling or reclamation of the chemical(s) or its container, and safe handling practices.
- Section 14 - explains classification information for shipping and transporting of hazardous chemical(s) by road, air, rail, or sea.
- Section 15 - identifies the safety, health, and environmental regulations specific to the product.
- Section 16 - tells you when the SDS was originally prepared or the last known revision date. This section of the SDS may also state where changes have been made to the previous version.
As a result of differing amounts of information needing to be provided in different territories and some companies choosing to provide more information than others or some chemicals or substances being more complex than others, Safety data sheets may be 15 pages or more. Longer SDS may have multiple descriptive fields with additional detail, providing different levels of information under each section.
Now we have a rough understanding of how a SDS is laid out we can look at what to look out for within an SDS. Within an SDS hazards are codified using a unique alphanumeric code which consists of one letter and three numbers. The letter “H” stands for “hazard statement” and the letter “P” for “precautionary statement”. This is then followed by three numbers. The first digit denotes the type of hazard, for example the number ”2” stands for physical hazards. The two following numbers correspond to the sequential numbering of hazards such as explosivity (codes from 200 to 210), flammability (codes from 220 to 230), etc.
There are some hazard statements carried through from the Dangerous Substances Directive [DSD] for chemical substances and Dangerous Preparations Directive [DPD] for 'preparations' or 'mixtures' of chemical substances. These are not included in the GHS but are codified as “EUH”.
With relation to the environment and marine life the hazard statement codes we need to look out for are the ones beginning with H4. We’ve laid out the key ones below.
Hazard Codes to Watch Out For in Marine Environments
H400 – Very toxic to aquatic life.
H401 - Toxic to aquatic life
H410 – Very toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects.
H411 – Toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects.
H412 – Harmful to aquatic life with long lasting effects.
H413 – May cause long lasting harmful effects to aquatic life.
H420 – Harms public health and the environment by destroying ozone in the upper atmosphere.
Where possible products whose safety data sheets contain the above hazard statements should be avoided, especially those with H400, H410 and H411. We’ve found a number of marine cleaning products and yacht washes in the market that contain ingredients listed with the H400 H401 and H411 hazard codes in their SDS, including those whose packaging suggests they are better for the environment. This is why it’s always worth checking the SDS.
SDS at first glance can seem confusing and intimidating however hopefully we’ve broken down how to read them and offered some suggestions as to what to look out for in them. You can see a list of ingredients to watch out for at our ingredients page here. These are ingredients that we’ve pledged never to use in our products.
Products with hazard statements beginning “H4” should be avoided, especially those with H400, H410 and H411. You can see a full list of hazard and precautionary statements here. Using products with these hazard statements in marine environments should be avoided, especially when the product is likely to be washed into the ocean as is the case for marine cleaning products. This is the same whether the products are for use on deck or in the interior such as laundry detergent, washing up liquid or bathroom cleaner. These will be flushed into the greywater tanks and greywater will often end up in the ocean.
Hopefully this has helped unpick SDS for you and made it a little easier to spot the products that truly are better for the environment. SDS legally have to be made readily available upon request, we’ve always published ours online and most other companies do now do this too. Therefore it’s really easy now to quickly check the SDS of a product and see whether a product is sustainable.