Methyl Isocyanate - Hazards


Methyl isocyanate (MIC) is extremely toxic. The threshold limit value set by the American Conference on Government Industrial Hygienists is 0.02 ppm. MIC is toxic by inhalation, ingestion and contact in quantities as low as 0.4 ppm. Exposure symptoms includes coughing, chest pain, dyspnea, asthma, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, as well as skin damage. Higher levels of exposure, over 21 ppm, can result in pulmonary or lung edema, emphysema and hemorrhages, bronchial pneumonia and death. Although the odor of methyl isocyanate cannot be detected at 5 ppm by most people, its potent lachrymal properties provide an excellent warning of its presence (at a concentration of 2–4 parts per million (ppm) subject's eyes are irritated, while at 21 ppm, subjects could not tolerate the presence of methyl isocyanate in air).

Proper care must be taken to store methyl isocyanate because of its ease of exothermically polymerizing (see Reactions) and its similar sensitivity to water. Only stainless steel or glass containers may be safely used; the MIC must be stored at temperatures below 40 °C (104 °F) and preferably at 4 °C (39 °F).

The toxic effect of the compound was apparent in the Bhopal disaster, when around 42,000 kilograms (93,000 lb) of methyl isocyanate and other gases were released from the underground reservoirs of the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) factory, over a populated area on December 3, 1984, immediately killing thousands and leading to the deaths of tens of thousands in subsequent weeks and months.

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