Concrete (Cement) Poisoning: Exposure, Treatment & Prevention

If you’re planning a project involving concrete, or maybe your job involves working around concrete or cement, it pays to be aware of the risks of concrete poisoning. While concrete is fairly safe to work with providing you take the necessary precautions, it can cause serious damage if allowed to come in contact with your skin for a prolonged period of time.

Concrete, mortar, and grout all contain Portland cement as one of their main ingredients. Portland cement, or any cement for that matter, has the capability to cause serious burns to the skin. While it’s relatively harmless to the skin when dry, calcium oxide – the main ingredient in cement – transforms into the highly alkaline calcium hydroxide when wet.

Wet cement has a very high pH level of between 12 and 13, which makes it caustic to human skin. A caustic material can burn through the skin, but there’s a good chance you might not notice it right away.

Unlike burns from touching something hot, chemical burns can develop over time, and by the time you notice the burn, a lot of damage may have already occurred. Luckily, wearing the right protective gear goes a long way to ensure you’ll be safe from concrete and cement poisoning.

Let’s take a closer look at concrete poisoning, how to identify and treat it, as well as how to avoid it in the first place.

Concrete Poisoning Types

Concrete poisoning can occur in a number of different ways, depending on the way it comes into contact with the body.

Skin Contact

The most common type of concrete poisoning comes from direct contact with the skin. It can occur during the mixing, pouring, or smoothing process, and can even work its way through clothing in some cases.

concrete pouring worker
Waterproof rubber boots will prevent contact with wet concrete. [Source]
When the skin comes in contact with wet concrete for a short period of time and is washed off immediately afterward burns don’t develop. Think of the handprints or initials kids sometimes leave in drying concrete. Typically, burns take a while to develop, meaning the skin has been in contact with drying concrete for an extended period of time before the burn develops.

Burns can be first, second, or third-degree, depending on how long the duration of contact with the cement. They can even require skin grafts or amputation in severe cases.

A typical concrete burn scenario:
A worker pours a concrete slab and then kneels on the drying concrete while smoothing it. The wet concrete works its way through the clothes and burns develop on the shins and knees.

Inhalation

Inhaling concrete dust can lead to a host of problems, including coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, and vomiting. Pouring, mixing, and transporting dry concrete can kick up a lot of dust, so avoiding getting this in your lungs is important.

Just like with concrete burns on the skin, concrete dust can work its way into your mouth, throat, and lungs and react with the moisture inside your body – causing painful burns. The calcium oxide present in dry concrete transforms into the caustic calcium hydroxide which leads to burns on the inside of the body.

Concrete dust also contains high volumes of silica, which can travel into your lungs and cause scar tissue and necrosis. People who have been exposed to inhaling silica for long periods can even develop Silicosis – a potentially fatal outcome.

The dangers of inhaling concrete dust should be taken seriously, which is why you’ll find many masonry cutting tools with water hose attachments to keep the dust down.

Ingestion

Lastly, concrete can also pose major health risks.

This is not something you’re likely to encounter during typical concrete work, but it poses a serious danger to children and pets. Concrete dust can also contaminate food or drinks if the environment is particularly dusty.

After ingested, concrete can cause burns to the lips, mouth, throat, and stomach. Drooling, vomiting, and difficulty swallowing follow.

Prevention

When it comes to concrete and cement poisoning, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The best thing you can do to avoid any issues is to wear the proper protective gear, avoid getting wet concrete on your bare skin, and avoid inhaling concrete dust as much as possible.

To ensure your safety while working with concrete:

  • Wear gloves intended for concrete work whenever you come into contact with wet concrete. These gloves feature liquid or chemical resistance and will stay dry. Gloves not intended for this can soak through and allow chemical burns to occur.
  • Wear long sleeves, full-length coveralls or pants, and waterproof or rubber boots.
  • When handling dry concrete, wear safety eyewear or a face shield. This will help prevent concrete dust from getting into your eyes, nose, and mouth. Additionally, you’ll want to wear a protective N95 respirator when working in particularly dusty environments.
  • Remove rings, watches, and other jewelry, as cement can become trapped underneath them.
  • Mix dry cement in well-ventilated areas.
  • Keep young kids and pets away from the work area whenever you’re mixing or pouring concrete.

Treatment

If you’ve inhaled cement dust, move away from the area and seek fresh air right away.

If you’ve gotten wet cement on your skin and believe a burn is forming, remove any soiled clothing and wash the skin thoroughly with clean water for 20 minutes. Adding vinegar to the water can help to stop the burn, as the acid from the vinegar will bring down the caustic pH levels of the cement.

Afterward, seek medical attention right away. It’s important to make it clear to any health care professionals that the burn is a cement burn. The treatment for cement burns and heat burns is different, although they can appear the same on the surface.


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