Cement and Wet Concrete are Toxic
Todd 06-25-2024
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After I’d been a pump operator for six months, I couldn’t get my hands clean anymore. No
matter how hard I scrubbed, there were gray lines in the folds in the skin of my hands. I assumed
that if I could get a good enough scrub brush, I could wash them clean. I was wrong.
I found out much later that I didn’t have dirty hands, I had damaged hands. I’d developed a
condition called ‘irritant dermatitis.’ It’s a disease caused by exposure to cement and wet
concrete (and other things, which we’ll not discuss here), and it will never go away until the
exposure to cement is removed. If it gets bad enough, you can develop an allergy to cement that
affects your entire body, called ‘systemic poisoning.’ If you develop that condition, you’ll have
to find a new career, because you’ll be made ill every time you’re exposed to cement or wet
concrete. As a pump operator, you have constant exposure to wet concrete.

There is a solution: keep your skin away from wet concrete. Rubber gloves work well, but if you
remove them to do intricate work you’ll be exposed again. It will help if you wash off the
cement, but any residue continues to damage the skin until the residue is fully removed, or until
it’s neutralized with a mild acid.
Why is cement harmful?
There is a range of the properties of aqueous solutions (water-like solutions). Pure water has a
pH of 7.0. at 77° F or 25°C). The letters ‘pH’stand for ‘potential of hydrogen,’ or ‘power of
hydrogen.’) Without getting into any chemistry lessons, you can assume that liquids with a low
pH (less than 7.0) are acidic and liquids with a pH higher than 7.0 are basic, or alkaline. Skin is
‘hoping’ for 7.0 pH solutions, which will have no effect. As you know, acids can badly burn skin,
but so can bases. See Figure 2.
The range of pH for liquids is typically assumed to be 0 to 14, but there are some powerful acids
and bases that are outside of that range.
Lime is alkaline (base). Cement is made of crushed limestone and has a pH number of 12.5.
Prolonged exposure can cause your skin to burn off—an injury that’s extremely painful and slow
to heal. See Figure 3. This poor guy was working in concrete in tennis shoes for one shift and
couldn’t work again for weeks.
Other considerations when working with cement

• Vinegar is a widely available mild acid and can neutralize cement burning. While
thorough washing will solve most concrete-contact issues, keep vinegar in mind if
your hands start to burn. NEVER use vinegar in your eyes, even if you got cement
in them. In that case get emergency treatment immediately. Many job sites have
eye-washing equipment on site for such an emergency.
• The cement dust that’s on your work clothes after a pour is also toxic. When
greeting your family, you can cause respiratory issues by embracing them with
your dusty clothes. This is especially important if anyone nearby has asthma or
another respiratory disease. It’s always best to remove your work clothes first,
preferably away from the family.
• The cement dust and concrete splatter that is on your clothes can, and will, dry out
and ruin the seals in your washing machine. Uniforms supplied by your employer
and washed by the uniform company are ideal, but even with your own clothes
you’d want to wash them in a commercial washer at a laundromat.
• Breathing cement dust is harmful to your lungs. Cement is activated by moisture,
and your lungs are very moist. The dust turns to concrete (in tiny amounts) and
could eventually give you black-lung disease. Always wear a breathing mask if
you’ll be exposed to cement dust.
• Concrete sawing and grinding reveals cement dust and silica dust. Both are
extremely toxic. Wear a good mask if you will be exposed; silica dust has special
OSHA rules for protection of your lungs. You can google preventive equipment if
you’ll be sawing or grinding concrete, or bricks, glass, or other dust-making
materials.
by Robert Edwards, ©2024.