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Diisocyanates: A Family of Versatile Building Blocks Important to Our Everyday Lives

What do skis, refrigerators, and bedding have in common? You’re probably wondering how three completely different products can have any similarities, but all three are made possible through chemical building blocks known as diisocyanates.

Diisocyanates are used in a wide range of polyurethane products that help enhance our everyday lives. They form tight seals, strong bonds, and enable products we use to be comfortable, durable, flexible, scratch and weather resistant, among various other qualities. Because of their incredible versatility, diisocyanates are utilized across many applications and manufactured goods, from cars to footwear to insulation. 

This blog dives into the various uses and benefits of diisocyanate chemistry and highlights the environmental, health, and safety efforts conducted by industry. 

What are diisocyanates, and how are they used?

Diisocyanates are a family of versatile chemical building blocks that have been in use since the 1940s. They are utilized in the production of polyurethane products, such as rigid and flexible foams, coatings, adhesives, sealants and elastomers (CASE). For such an unfamiliar term, diisocyanates enhance many of the products we rely on every day.

Diisocyanates provide polyurethane foam with strong bonds, tight seals, and thermal insulation, making it an excellent material for insulating household appliances like freezers and refrigerators. These insulation properties span beyond just household appliances to encapsulate entire households. Diisocyanate-based spray polyurethane foam (SPF) is used in both residential and commercial buildings to help prevent unwanted airflow and increase energy efficiency.

Many of our favorite sports and leisure activities we partake in involve equipment that has flexibility, elasticity, toughness, and durability characteristics — all which are reliant on diisocyanates. Take skiing, for example: when you are speeding down a ski slope, your skis and bindings typically rely on diisocyanates to stay strong. The padding in athletic footwear is usually made with polyurethane foam that contains diisocyanates. Golf, skateboarding, archery, kayaking, and countless other sports and leisure activities also rely on diisocyanates.  

Diisocyanates are used in the production of flexible foams for end products that include cushioning for mattresses, pillows, sofas, chairs, and other furniture. So the next time you get a really good night’s sleep on a comfortable mattress, you can probably thank diisocyanates.

When it comes to the auto industry, diisocyanates are instrumental in helping to make body panels and seat frames lighter, thereby increasing fuel efficiency in the cars and trucks we drive. Diisocyanates also contribute to the high gloss “wet” look found in automotive coatings, simultaneously making the coating more resistant to scratches and harsh weather elements.

Industry is leading the charge on workplace safety and environmental stewardship.

Workplace safety and environmental stewardship are top priorities for the chemical industry. While a robust system of laws are in place to curb emissions and promote sustainability and workplace safety, the chemical industry is taking initiative to go above and beyond the regulatory standards currently in place. The American Chemistry Council’s (ACC) Diisocyanate Panel is working to enhance safety measures, develop worker safety guidance, increase energy efficiency, and provide information to the public.

Industry is committed to worker safety

Since diisocyanates are critical components in the production of products that we rely on every day, it is essential that manufacturers strive to create a safe and healthy workplace for those handling this chemistry. Producers of diisocyanates are committed to the well-being of their employees and making safety information readily available.

The Diisocyanate Panel’s Product Stewardship Library contains a robust collection of information and resources on product stewardship, workplace safety, guidance for working with diisocyanates, uses and benefits, and more. This includes guidance documents for both workers and employers on how to screen for potential adverse health effects related to diisocyanate exposure and a guide for primary care physicians evaluating potential exposure.

The Diisocyanate Panel, along with the Center for the Polyurethanes Industry and the Aliphatic Diisocyanates Panel, recently renewed an Alliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to provide members, occupational physicians, stakeholders, and the polyurethanes value chain with information, guidance, and access to training resources related to diisocyanates.

Diisocyanates and environmental stewardship

Makers of diisocyanates are committed to improving the environmental sustainability of their operations. Diisocyanate-based polyurethane products can be essential to the continuous progress made in environmental stewardship and efficient use of natural resources.

As noted earlier, diisocyanates, in fact, can help reduce energy consumption. Diisocyanate-based SPF can significantly enhance the energy efficiency of residential and commercial buildings by sealing up cracks and leaks that allow unwanted airflow. Polyurethanes that have reached the end of service life can be sent for reuse, chemical recycling, or can be used for energy recovery under national, regional and local regulations.

Diisocyanate producers make safe handling, storing and disposing of diisocyanates an industry-wide priority. Waste disposal is highly regulated at federal, state and local levels. Waste methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) and toluene diisocyanate (TDI) handling is required to be in compliance with U.S. environmental laws. ACC’s Diisocyanate Panel has developed guidance documents on how to safely dispose of both MDI and TDI waste.

So the next time you tie your shoe laces before walking out the door or relax on a comfortable mattress and pillow, think about how this versatile chemistry is enhancing your life. Check out this 2-minute video to learn more about this incredible family of chemical building blocks.

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