Chemical Eye Burns (cont.)
Chemical Eye Burn Causes
Most chemical eye injuries occur at work. Industries use a variety of
chemicals daily. However, chemical injuries also frequently occur at home from
cleaning products or other regular household products; these injuries can be
just as dangerous and must be treated seriously and immediately.
Chemical burns to the eye can be divided into
three categories: alkali burns,
acid burns, and irritants.
The acidity or alkalinity, called the pH, of a substance is measured on a
scale from 1-14, with 7 indicating a neutral substance. Substances with pH
values less than 7 are acids, while numbers higher than 7 are alkaline; the
higher or lower the number, the more acidic or basic a substance is and the more
damage it can cause.
- Alkali burns are the most dangerous. Alkalis-chemicals that have a high
pH-penetrate the surface of the eye and can cause severe injury to both the
external structures like the cornea and the internal structures like the lens.
In general, more damage occurs with higher pH chemicals.
- Common alkali substances contain the hydroxides of ammonia, lye, potassium
hydroxide,, magnesium, and lime.
- Substances you may have at home that contain these
chemicals include fertilizers, cleaning products (ammonia), drain cleaners (lye), oven cleaners,
and plaster or cement (lime).
- Acid burns result from chemicals with a low pH and are usually less severe
than alkali burns because they do not penetrate into the eye as readily as
alkaline substances. The exception is a hydrofluoric acid burn, which is as
dangerous as an alkali burn. Acids usually damage only the very front of the
eye; however, they can cause serious damage to the cornea and also may result in
- Common acids causing eye burns include sulfuric acid, sulfurous acid,
hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, acetic acid, chromic acid, and hydrofluoric
- Substances you have at home that may contain these
chemicals include glass polish (hydrofluoric acid), vinegar, or nail polish remover (acetic acid). An
automobile battery can explode and cause a sulfuric acid burn. This is one of
the most common acidic burns of the eye.
- Irritants are substances that have a neutral pH and tend to cause more
discomfort to the eye than actual damage.
- Most household detergents fall into this category.
- Pepper spray is also an irritant. It can cause significant pain but usually
does not affect vision and rarely causes any damage to the eye.
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