There are times when you come across people working at a construction site and not wearing any protective clothing to prevent contact between the skin and concrete. Concrete poisoning refers to the condition that is brought about by constant exposure of the skin to the caustic and chemical ingredients that form this important construction compound.
There are other glues, tars and several chemical present in concrete that can bring about respiratory complications, burning of the eyes nose and throat and even some vomiting.
Symptoms of concrete poisoning
- Drying of the skin, with lesions forming; cracks may also appear and there will be fluid oozing from the cracks.
- The slow and debilitating destruction of the integrity of the skin
- In severe cases, lesions may be formed on the skin, filled with purulent drainage fluids.
- Allergic dermatitis can also develop as a secondary complication
- In the worst cases, amputation has been the only way to save a limb
- The skin will turn a deep blue colour, before becoming red and highly inflamed.
When cement has not been mixed with water, it contains calcium oxide, which is not dangerous. When water is added to the cement, the calcium oxide now forms calcium hydroxide, which has a pH of between 12 and 13, which is highly alkaline.
Now human skin has a pH of 5.5, and therefore the wet cement will bring about caustic skin burns, which may not be apparent immediately, but will become worse with time. A worker can work with cement for several hours without feeling anything, but the damage to the skin is ongoing. It is important that a worker take care when working with concrete.
There are other characteristics of concrete that are harmful to human skin:
- It is hygroscopic, which means that it draws moisture from the skin
- It is abrasive and therefore affects the integrity of the skin, reducing its effectiveness as a barrier.
- It has chemicals like hexavalent chromium which bring about contact dermatitis.
Treatment for concrete poisoning
First thing is to remove all wet cement from the exposed body parts and then wash the affected skin with warm water. Note that if wet cement stays longer on the skin, the effects will be worse; immediate action is crucial.
The next thing is to try and neutralize the alkaline content of the cement, by washing all exposed parts with a mixture of vinegar and water. The vinegar has an acidic pH and will neutralise the alkaline pH of the cement. If vinegar is unavailable, you can use any citrus fruit juice.
Note that wet cement will burn the eyes and you should wear protective glasses at all times. In case the cement gets into the eyes, they should be washed with plain water. Immediately go to an ophthalmologist for further treatment.
Apply Aloe Vera to the exposed parts as it helps in soothing the skin and it also has antiseptic characteristics to prevent infection. If you have some sensation of burning, use calendula lotion or ointment, which helps in stopping the formation of blisters.
Prevention of concrete poisoning
It is important that you prevent concrete poisoning in the first place by following these simple requirements:
- Keep at least 5 to 7 gallons of water for every worker nearby
- Keep soap with a neutral pH for workers to wash with. You should not use soaps with alcohol, limonene, lanolin and perfumes.
- Keep some buffering spray such as Neutralite or Mason’s Hand Rinse. These help in normalising the pH of the skin after exposure.
- Keep clean towels handy
- Keep a full range of pH indicator papers nearby so you can get accurate measurements of the skin’s pH. They can also be used to get the pH of the working environment, Work clothes, the interior of cars, and any other areas where contact can occur.
Workers should also be properly dressed at all times and the protective gear should include:
- Full-cover goggles/Safety glasses with side shields – these keep away concrete dust which will mix with the mixture in the eyes to form the caustic calcium hydroxide compound. They also protect against splattering concrete.
- Alkali-resistant gloves – these should be snug; nitrite or butyl gloves are the best.
- Long sleeve shirts – these should be tucked into the gloves.
- Overalls – these should cover the full body and tucked into water resistant boots.
- Waterproof pads – these should be used on fresh concrete surfaces and the knees, elbows and hands; these are the areas where concrete burns mostly occur.
- Remove all belts, watches and jewellery – these can trap concrete under them creating contact with the skin.
Concrete poisoning is something that most people simply ignore; some workers work with concrete for years, and then have lasting damage to their skin, and wish that they knew. Take caution when working with concrete.