There are numerous harmful effects of silica gel, especially the form that contains cobalt chloride. Silica gel has the potential to harm humans, animals and the environment. Before using or disposing of silica gel products, consider the possible harmful effects associated with it.
Some forms of silica gel have been proven to cause cancer in laboratory settings, specifically the kind that contains the chemical cobalt chloride. Cobalt chloride is often added to standard silica gel to indicate the presence of water or humidity. When the silica gel is still active, the cobalt content causes it to remain blue, making it easier to assess water saturation. Although the silica gel encountered in household products typically does not contain cobalt chloride, its use is widespread in many public settings such as parks. Silica gel alone has not been proven to cause cancer.
Ingesting silica gel causes dehydration and discomfort since the main purpose of the product is to absorb water, but only if a lot is swallowed. In all likelihood the most irritation will occur to the mouth and throat as the product is swallowed. If consumed in large quantities, silica gel has been said to cause stomach upset. However, as long as the silica gel does not contain cobalt chloride, it is actually not poisonous to the body.
Silica gel causes irritation and redness when contact with the eyes occurs. Pain will also arise as the silica gel attempts to absorb fluids on the surface of the eye. Wearing goggles reduces this risk; however, if contact does occur, the eyes must be rinsed out with water for at least 15 minutes to completely remove the silica gel.
Inhaling silica gel is highly dangerous and requires immediate medical attention. The warning labels on common silica gel packets found in household items are actually there because of respiration concerns, not poison issues, as many people believe. A child who attempts to eat silica gel may actually inhale some of the beads, causing severe lung irritation, shortness of breath and coughing. Repeated long-term exposure to the dust form of silica gel causes the lung disease silicosis, which damages the lungs permanently.
Irritation and redness occurs from touching silica gel, and dryness and skin abrasions will result if extended exposure occurs. Always protect hands and bare skin from silica gel, including from potential secondary exposures due to touching clothing or other items that have come into contact with it.
Silica gel is thought to cause harm to the environment, especially aquatic animal life and water sources. Cobalt chloride-containing silica gel is an especially hazardous waste and should be disposed of as such to limit these harmful environmental effects. While some manufacturers have created silica gel with lower amounts of cobalt chloride in an attempt to reduce hazards, one company, Nantong OhE Chemicals, has created a unique silica gel product, Eco Blue, which indicates water saturation without using any of the harmful component cobalt chloride.