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The hazard: Glutaraldehyde is a toxic chemical that is used for cold sterilization of medical and dental equipment. It is in Cidex and other products. Glutaraldehyde can cause severe irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, lungs, nausea, headaches, drowsiness, and dizziness. It can cause difficult breathing and other severe allergic reactions in workers who have become sensitized to glutaraldehyde.

Who is at risk: Workers who use glutaraldehyde to sterilize instruments and other tasks.

Prevention: Avoid using glutaraldehyde by using other chemicals or processes, enclose operations and use local exhaust ventilation, store and handle properly, use respirators and other personal protective equipment.

Laws: There is no Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) permissible exposure limit. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that exposure to glutaraldehyde be under 0.2 ppm (parts per million).


Glutaraldehyde is a colorless liquid used to sterilize medical and dental equipment. It is in products including Cidex, Glutarex, and Sonacide. Glutaraldehyde is also used in leather tanning and water treatment, and as a chemical preservative.


Short term (acute) effects: Contact with liquid and vapor can severely irritate the eyes, and at higher concentrations burns the skin. Breathing glutaraldehyde can irritate the nose, throat, and respiratory tract, causing coughing and wheezing. Exposure to glutaraldehyde can cause nausea, headaches, drowsiness, and dizziness.

Long-term (chronic) effects: Glutaraldehyde is a sensitizer. This means some workers will become very sensitive to glutaraldehyde and have strong reactions if they are exposed to even small amounts. Workers may get sudden asthma attacks with difficult breathing, wheezing, coughing, and tightness in the chest. Prolonged exposure can cause a skin allergy and chronic eczema, and afterwards, exposure to small amounts produces severe itching and skin rashes.


Health care workers who use glutaraldehyde to cold sterilize medical, surgical, and dental devices. Glutaraldehyde is also used in tissue embalming, during X-ray film processing, and in electron microscopy. It is also commonly used in the paper and tanning industries, in the manufacture of adhesives and sealants, and as a biocide in water cooling towers.


  • Avoid using the product (substitution): Where possible, the use of glutaraldehyde should be avoided by using less toxic chemicals or other processes for sterilization.
  • Use equipment to avoid exposure (engineering controls): Glutaraldehyde should be used in a contained process along with local exhaust ventilation. Automate the transfer of pure glutaraldehyde (crystal form) or pump liquid glutaraldehyde from drums or other storage containers to process containers and operations.
  • Work practices: The following steps can reduce exposure:


    • Store glutaraldehyde in closed containers in well ventilated areas. Post signs to remind staff to replace lids after using product.


    • Change into clean clothes if clothing becomes contaminated. Do NOT take contaminated clothing home.


    • Use eye wash fountains and emergency showers if there is skin contact with glutaraldehyde. Wash or shower for at least 15 minutes to remove chemical.


    • Do not eat, drink or smoke in any area where glutaraldehyde is handled or stored.


    • Use a vacuum or wet method to reduce dust during clean up for pure glutaraldehyde. DO NOT DRY SWEEP.


  • Respirators and protective gear (personal protective equipment): In addition to substituting other products, engineering controls and work practices, respirators or other personal protective equipment (PPE) may be necessary.


    • Gloves made of butyl rubber, neoprene or viton materials.


    • Protective clothing (suits, gloves, footwear, etc.) should be clean, available each day, and put on before work begins
    • Eye protection: for pure glutaraldehyde wear impact resistant eye protection with side shield or goggles. Wear indirect-vent impact and splash resistant goggles when working with liquids.
    • Respirators: as part of a written respiratory protection program that includes worker training, fit-testing, and medical exams. A positive pressure supplied air respirator is needed if other control measures do not keep exposure below 0.2 ppm.


There is no Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) permissible exposure limit. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that exposure to glutaraldehyde be under 0.2 ppm ( parts per million). The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) recommends a limit of 0.05 ppm.

January 2001

For more information about protecting workers from workplace hazards, contact the AFSCME Health and Safety Program at (202) 429-1215, or 1625 L Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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