Question: In what situations should a neutralizer be used when cleaning up spills?
Answer: Use a neutralizer as the final step in the cleanup of a spill, especially if your spill is small.
The fact is, neither the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) nor the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) require corrosive spills to be neutralized as part of a spill response process. And neutralization of an entire spill can be dangerous, especially if the spill is larger than five gallons. The area where the spill occurred will probably have to be neutralized after the liquid is cleaned up, however. But we need a little background here.
Substances with either a high or low pH are corrosive. The pH is measured on a scale of 1–14, with 7 being the magic number, or neutral. An acid has a pH of less than 7, and bases have a pH greater than 7. Acids and bases are opposites, and they are actually used to neutralize each other.
Here’s where it gets interesting. When acids and bases are mixed together, things get hot. Literally. Mixing acids and bases causes a heat reaction that can range from warm to dangerously hot. Along with this reaction, carbon dioxide can be generated. So trying to neutralize an entire spill, especially a large one, is not recommended, especially for untrained personnel.
In the case of a large spill, it would be best to use the appropriate (hazmat) absorbents to clean up the majority of the liquid, then dispose of the absorbents according to hazardous waste regulations. At that point, you can use a neutralizer (for an acidic spill or for a caustic spill) — very carefully — to treat the area where the spill occurred. If you properly neutralize the spill area, you can even test the pH to make sure the reading is 7, or neutral (noncorrosive). Once you’ve achieved that reading, you can be sure the contamination and damage won’t continue.
If you have a small spill — one of less than 5 gallons — and you want to neutralize it at the beginning of the cleanup process, follow the directions on the neutralizer package TO THE LETTER. That includes wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). In fact, it’s a great idea to incorporate neutralization drills as part of your spill cleanup safety plan.