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HCl H+ + Cl-
Chemists will tell you that the following equation is more correct because H+ ions (sometimes referred to as "protons") actually exist as H3O+ ions (called hydronium cations) in water:
HCl + H2O H3O+ + Cl-
The actual behavior is much more complex, but either of the above are a convenient enough way of thinking about how acids dissociate in water. Regardless of how you write the equations, all of the following strong acids will cause severe and immediate burns upon skin contact:
The acids listed above are all examples of inorganic acids, sometimes called mineral acids. Mineral/inorganic acids can be strong or weak.
Weak acids do not dissociate completely into ions. Examples of these include acetic acid (a 5% solution of acetic acid in water is called vinegar), formic acid, ammonium cation (NH4+), and water itself. The strength of acids can be measured using the pH scale. The lower the pH, the greater the acidity of a solution.
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Just because an acid is weak does not mean that it can't harm you. For example, HF, hydrofluoric acid, is a weak inorganic acid. When you spill it on your hand it doesn't burn...but over the course of hours it migrates to the bones in your fingers and then begins to dissolve them from the inside out (a painful process; amputation can be required). In addition, systemic effects such as hypocalcemia can cause death. See the HF links under Further Reading below for more information.
Some common properties of acids are:
pH is also important to know in case you spill the material on your skin or eyes. Whenever a substance enters the eye, flush with water for 15 minutes and get prompt medical attention.
Special care needs to be taken when storing acids. Minor spills and acid fumes can quickly corrode standard metal storage cabinets or soapstone countertops, for example. The best choice for storing acid containers is a chemically-resistant cabinet designed for that purpose, with polyethylene construction being the best choice for laboratory quantities of acids. Polyethylene spill trays are also a very good idea, whether acids are stored on a bench top or in a cabinet.
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Disclaimer: The information contained herein is believed to be true and accurate, however ILPI makes no guarantees concerning the veracity of any statement. Use of any information on this page is at the reader's own risk. ILPI strongly encourages the reader to consult the appropriate local, state and federal agencies concerning the matters discussed herein.