Concrete is the world’s number one building material for a good reason. The main ingredients of this mixture are sand, cement, and a coarse aggregate. These components bond together when water is added to the mixture, but unfortunately, the chemical composition of concrete makes it poisonous to organic tissues.
Concrete poisoning can kill you if there’s no medical intervention. Poisoning occurs when calcium oxide present in cement reacts with water molecules to form calcium hydroxide. Unless it’s microscopically cleaned, the burn reaches internal organs, causing multiple organ failure and possible death.
This article looks at the three main modes of concrete poisoning. It also covers other relevant topics, such as signs of concrete poisoning, available treatments, and how to stay safe when working with concrete.
How Concrete Poisoning Occurs
The corrosive compound in concrete is introduced through skin contact, inhalation, and ingestion. Below is a detailed account of each method’s mode of contamination.
Direct Skin Contact
The skin is the first line of defense against harmful substances. Any skin surface that is left exposed to a worksite can get into contact with concrete. Contamination can happen during the pouring or mixing of the concrete.
The alkaline calcium hydroxide corrodes the skin, causing wounds that are similar to heat burns. The burns don’t stop until the concrete is washed off.
Concrete burns start as irritation and progress into deeper third-degree burns with time. The sooner the affected area is washed in running water, the better. Sometimes, skin contact occurs as a result of suspended cement dust in the air. On reaching the skin, these particles react with sweat and cause irritation, burns, and skin ulcers. Concrete dust getting into the eye can lead to blindness.
Wearing personal protective equipment doesn’t always guarantee safety from concrete poisoning.
It is not uncommon for concrete particles to get trapped in gloves, boots, and coveralls. The trapped particle reacts with sweat from the body, causing severe burns. Avoid loose-fitting or dirty protective equipment to prevent this kind of poisoning.
Concrete contains several harmful compounds. The main threats are the alkaline calcium oxide and trace amounts of silica.
During dumping, grinding, or pouring of the cement, toxic dust accumulates in the air. When you breathe this air, the calcium oxide is deposited on different body parts, such as the lungs. The oxide reacts with moisture to form the corrosive calcium hydroxide.
The deposited calcium oxide can cause irritation and burns to the mouth, throat, lungs, and stomach. Such injuries can lead to difficulty in breathing, vomiting, and allergic reactions.
Another compound present in concrete dust is silica. Repeated exposure can cause a fatal lung disease known as Silicosis. This disease is also thought to be linked to lung cancer.
Eating or drinking in the presence of cement dust contaminates the food. The ingested cement dust particles are deposited in the digestive system.
Firstly, the dust begins to absorb water from the surrounding tissues. This causes irritation and dryness in areas like the esophagus.
In addition to eroding the intestinal walls, the deposited dust can harden and cause a gastric blockage.
Related article: Do Concrete Gutters Contain Asbestos?
Signs and Symptoms of Concrete Poisoning
Concrete poisoning can be fatal if the exposure is extensive. If left untreated, the burns will spread from the skin to internal organs such as lungs, intestines, liver, and stomach.
Eventually, the worst-hit organs begin to shut down. Usually, the lungs are the first to fail. The patient dies from multiple organ failure syndrome. Patients can still survive this stage with the appropriate treatment.
Concrete is very poisonous and can be fatal. Early detection is crucial to getting treatment before it’s too late.
The following are some of the signs and symptoms of concrete poisoning:
- Burns, irritation, and deep wounds on the skin
- Breathing difficulty, which is often accompanied by throat swelling and irritation
- A wheezing sound when breathing
- Severe abdominal pains
- Difficulty in swallowing
- Blood in your stool
Treatment Options for Concrete Poisoning
If you work with concrete and notice these symptoms, you may have suffered concrete poisoning. However, only tests such as chest X-rays, bronchoscopy, and heart tracing will confirm your suspicions.
What follows diagnosis is treatment. Here are standard treatment options for concrete poisoning:
A first aid kit should always be available at every construction site. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends washing cement burns with cold running water for about 20 minutes.
You may use a ph neutral soap or add some diluted vinegar to neutralize any cement residues on the skin.
Concrete poisoning may be accompanied by pain and discomfort. Medication can alleviate some of the discomforts and prevent further poisoning.
Possible medicine includes antihistamines to help with allergies, corticosteroids, and antibiotics to prevent infections. Patients may also need pain medication for severe burns.
Superficial skin burns often heal naturally. However, second and third-degree skin burns usually require surgery to heal faster and with minimal scarring. Skin grafting is a surgical procedure that removes damaged skin tissues and replaces them with healthy tissues from another body part.
After a while, blood vessels regrow in the area, and the transplanted skin bonds to the body. Doctors also can surgically remove other affected parts and organs through an organ transplant.
Gastric lavage is a medical procedure performed to empty the contents of the stomach. It is better known as stomach pumping or gastric suction. If the wet cement makes its way to the stomach, gastric lavage is an option.
However, the procedure must be performed within four hours of the concrete poisoning. When done correctly, it removes all the corrosive calcium hydroxide in your digestive system.
How to Prevent Concrete Poisoning
The ideal solution to cement poisoning would be to stay away from wet concrete. However, that is not an option for construction and cement factory workers. The good news is that you can protect yourself by wearing protective gear and adopting safe working conditions.
Below are the safety precautions that help prevent concrete poisoning.
- Wear protective garments when working with cement. They include fitting gloves, long-sleeved overalls, and trousers.
- Mix dry cement in well-ventilated spaces.
- Wear respiratory gear such as a respirator when working in a place with cement dust.
- Wear the right eye protection when mixing or pouring concrete.
- Remove clothing that has been contaminated by concrete and wash off the affected skin immediately.
- Don’t wash hands in water used to clean construction tools.
Here is a video with more explanation on how to prevent concrete poisoning:
Is Concrete Poisoning an Automatic Death Sentence?
Concrete poisoning is not an automatic death sentence. The outcome depends on the level and duration of exposure.
According to a National Burn Repository study, most burns occur in males between 26 and 41 years. The average skin burn area is usually about 6% TBSA.
With proper medical attention, the concrete poisoning patients often get better after an 8-day hospital stay. The key is to get immediate medical attention.
Concrete poisoning is a severe health hazard that can kill you. In summary, concrete poisoning can happen in the following ways:
- Breathing in cement particles in a dusty working environment
- Direct contact with the skin and absorbed into the body
- Swallowing concrete contaminated food or fluids
Whatever the means of poisoning, the effects are the same. Concrete poisoning damages the body cells in two ways.
First, it absorbs water from body tissues. Secondly, its alkaline nature corrodes the epithelial cells and subsequently spreads to deeper tissues.
Unless the affected tissues are microscopically cleaned, the damage will continue to spread.