Hydrofluoric Acid: Properties and Toxicology

Hydrofluoric acid is one of the most hazardous chemicals used in research laboratories at Columbia.  The actual users-mainly researchers-and first-responders are at the greatest risk of exposure to incidents involving releases.  Gaseous hydrogen fluoride and hydrofluoric acid have nearly the same toxicological properties and can be considered interchangeable; the term “HF” is often used to denote either the gas or the liquid acid. 

HF interacts corrosively with a wide variety of materials, making it both useful and hazardous.  Most metals, natural rubber, rock, concrete, glass, fiberglass, ceramics and glazes are dissolved by HF.  HF does not attack metallic lead and platinum, polyethylene, polypropylene, Teflon, plexiglass (acrylic), or wax.

HF burns are unlike other acid burns, where injury is caused predominately by dissociated H+ ions.  HF readily penetrates skin, corroding soft tissue and bone.  Inhaled HF vapor/gas can cause delayed pulmonary edema.  Systemic HF poisoning removes Ca2+ from soft tissues and bones (hypocalcemia).  Ca2+ regulation is critical for normal cell function, neural transmission, bone integrity, blood coagulation and intracellular signaling.  Sudden death following acute HF exposure is common. Exposure to dilute solutions may not cause any pain on contact and may go undetected for hours.  Delays in first aid/treatment of HF exposure result in painful, slow-to-heal burns and systemic HF poisoning.  Immediately flood areas of exposure with copious amounts of water, followed by an application of calcium gluconate first aid gel, which must be on hand wherever HF is used.  The above steps must be done in order to minimize damage to the exposed person.

The only place to work with HF safely is in a properly working chemical fume hood.  Procedures involving even small quantities of dilute HF solutions must not be performed on an open lab bench. Prevent contamination by using plastic trays or bench paper on work surfaces before starting HF procedures.


The Use of Radioactive Materials at Sea      

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has granted Columbia University a Radioactive Material License to use radioactive isotopes in U.S. and international waters. The license applies to Columbia University research vessel (s) and is also geared to insure that Columbia University scientists who are using other institutions’ research ships have the proper documentation and training to use radioactive materials.

Columbia University has just recently replaced its research ship R/V Ewing with the bigger and better equipped R/V Marcus G. Langseth. The ship will mainly be used for research in physical oceanography; however small amounts of radioactive materials, such as C-14 and H-3, might be used as biological tracers in studying physiological processes or Cs-137 may be used in sediment core loggers.

Most radioactive work aboard research ships is carried out in an enclosed van. All of the laboratory-based use requirements apply: wearing disposable gloves, area and wipe surveys, decontamination of hot spots, etc. All communication and exchange of documentation between scientists and the Radiation Safety Office are carried out via internet. Radiation Safety aboard research vessels is the responsibility of the ship operator and the host institution. Radioactive waste collection and storage aboard the Columbia ship is strictly regulated and the waste must be returned to the University for disposal.


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