Biodiesel is a relatively safe product. It is considered nonflammable and biodegradable. However, the components to make biodiesel can be hazardous in some situations. Biodiesel is made by reacting vegetable oil or animal fat with an alcohol (methanol or ethanol) and a catalyst (sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide). Sulfuric and hydrochloric acids are also used in biodiesel production. Methanol, the catalysts, and the acids are toxic chemicals.
Methanol is colorless and tasteless and can cause blindness or death if it enters the body through the nose, mouth, or skin. It is a cumulative poison: repeated, brief exposures can cause a toxic reaction. Methanol is also very flammable and burns with an almost invisible flame, making the fire difficult to see. Methanol vapors are heavy, and can travel along the ground to a source of ignition. See Handling Alcohols in Biodiesel Production for more information on safely handling methanol.
Sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide are strong bases which can burn unprotected skin and kill nerve cells before pain can be felt. When sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide is mixed with alcohol and stirred, a fine mist can be produced which can cause irritation to the respiratory tract. See Handling Strong Bases in Biodiesel Production for information on safely handling these chemicals.
Sulfuric and hydrochloric acids can cause chemical burns; eye, nose, and throat irritation; and shortness of breath, in addition to more serious injuries. See Handling Strong Acids in Biodiesel Production for information on safely handling these acids.
Government Help and Resources
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that material safety data sheets (MSDS) be provided by chemical suppliers. It is imperative to have these sheets prominently displayed and within easy reach of personnel who come into contact with these materials. These sheets should cover the range of all products used in the plant. They provide the key to treatment in case of an accidental exposure and/or spill as well as some preventative measures.
The National Research Council has developed a 448-page lab safety publication: Prudent Practices in the Laboratory: Handling and Disposing of Chemicals. This publication can be purchased or read online for free at the above link. It recommends that a chemical hygiene plan be instituted in every lab, including adequate ventilation and clearly stated guidelines for minimum exposure to hazardous chemicals. The plan should also include an employee training plan, adequate record keeping, signs and labels indicating potential hazards and safety procedures, and procedures for spills and accidents.
The Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) was passed to allow governments and communities to know about hazardous chemicals in their area. This law requires facilities to appoint an emergency response coordinator and to notify the State Emergency Response Commission and Local Emergency Planning Commission of the presence of any “extremely hazardous substance” if it has such a substance in excess of the substance’s threshold planning quantity.