Corrosive Battery Dust and Me.

by William

This week while working at the restoration shop I took a little time out to help a friend with a side job. It seemed his parents’ Toyota Previa was having trouble starting. A quick glance under the hood revealed a corroded positive battery terminal. The terminal end was a replaceable bolt-on type so we figured we could replace it with a new terminal and be on our way. After digging through the bin of Alfa Romeo electrical parts we couldn’t find a suitable part and had to run down the street to the local German parts vendor to find a terminal that would work.

After procuring the appropriate terminal I got on with the task of getting the old terminal off. The nut holding the terminal to the positive cable would not budge. I even tried putting the air gun on it and only proceeded to round the corners off a bit. It was pretty clear that the corrosion had welded the terminal to the cable pretty well. I got out a wire brush and cleaned off the corrosion as much as I could but it wasn’t getting the job done, so I put a wire wheel end on one of our air grinder, and here is where I made my first mistake. I grabbed a face shield to protect my eyes, but didn’t grab a respirator or dust mask because I was working outside and was only going to hit the terminal really quickly with the wire wheel. Well, very predictably, the wire wheel cleaned the corrosion right off the terminal and threw a cloud of dust into the air. I backed away quickly but not before I sucked a little into my mouth and probably lungs. Being the hypochondriac that I am I immediately felt irritation in my throat and got a bit nervous.

I had my girlfriend get me the number for poison control, which should have been and is now permanently entered into my cell phones memory, and I gave them a call. As the phone rang I could feel a good headache coming on. When I got connected with someone I explained my bone-head move and symptoms as descriptively as possible. The woman on the other end calmed me down and explained that there were probably traces of sulfuric acid in the dust but that the real worry should be my eyes. If they weren’t having problems she explained, then I was in good shape. She also told me that prolonged exposure to the dust could cause respiratory problems, but only a single inhale should probably be ok, but not advised of course.

I gave a huge cough of relief that my throat wasn’t being disinigrated by the acid and proceeded to go wash my mouth out and pound some pain killers to get rid of the headache. I couldn’t believe how dumb I was. As a mechanic I’m a huge advocate of health and safety precautions. I always wear eye protection, gloves and a respirator when doing anything even slightly risky. I’m no longer a 15 year old, spray painting in-doors with a bandanna over my face and having blue buggers for the next week. I know many of the problems associated with the chemicals and solvents used in the automotive field and that if you want to stay healthy and work for a long time you need to be extremely safe. But in a lapse of judgment I just plain forgot. At least I was wearing eye protection.
I guess the moral of this story is: think seriously about your health when working on cars. It is hazardous and there are a lot of nasty chemicals on the market. Get good Nitrile gloves (the blue or purple style) as they are a bit more chemical resistant than latex. Get some good safety goggles. Wear leather work gloves when using grinders or sharp motorized tools. Get yourself a good respirator, not just a dust mask but something that will filter out dust particles, chemical sprays, paint fumes etc… And don’t forget about ear protection, your hearing is a fragile thing. Most importantly be smart about using all of these devices, they may save your life down the road.
Oh, and after cleaning the terminal, a little heat let the nut come right off. The new terminal solved the problem.

-Bill Mertz

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3 Responses to “Corrosive Battery Dust and Me.”

  1. Paul Says:

    I would have freaked out! I’m glad you hear you’re okay!

  2. William Says:

    Yeah, fortunately I have a long history of doing stupid things so I don’t freak out unless it’s really bad.

  3. Marty Says:

    I’m glad to hear I am not the only one who did this. I scared myself to death yesterday doing the exact same thing. Except with me, I didn’t call poison control for several hours. During this time, I was freaking out drinking water and milk galore.

    Thanks for posting this, it really makes me feel better!

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