There are too many things we take for granted. When it comes to health, if it doesn’t hurt, we don’t pay attention to it. This is the case with the solvents we use around the house, including the apparently harmless cleaners and the more aggressive degreasers and thinners. The solvents used at the workplace are considerably more powerful. In general, quite a few of the products we use at home fit the definition of toxic.
The term solvent refers to liquid (usually organic) chemicals used to dissolve solids. Some, like turpentine and the citrus solvents, are naturally derived. Others are made from petroleum or other synthetic sources. None is “safe,” although there are degrees of “un-safeness.” (CDC. 2010) Skin contact and inhalation are both means of entry into the body, and may be categorized by duration as long or short, and by intensity as low or high. Acute effects occur after short-term exposure; chronic effects after a longer period of time. Health consequences may be subclinical, meaning that symptoms are not yet manifest.
Some solvents—this includes pesticides—are fat-soluble and allow metabolites access to the central and peripheral nervous systems (CNS and PNS). While narcosis (stupor) may be reversible, demyelination and cell death often are not. Researchers in France looked at the relation between Parkinson’s disease and exposure to pesticides in a population whose exposure to these chemicals is prevalent (exterminators), and found that relation to be positive, especially for organochlorine insecticides. (Elbaz. 2009) Prior studies on the epidemiology of Parkinson’s by the same team came to a similar conclusion. (Elbaz. 2008)
All solvents can dissolve the skin’s protective barrier of oils, causing the skin to dry and chap and leading to some form of dermatitis. Some of the natural ones, like turpentine, may cause allergic reactions. Some cause no overt damage but penetrate the skin, enter the bloodstream, and damage other organs, particularly the liver. (Nachman. 2002) Most of us connect toxicity to physical contact, never thinking that the vapors alone can cause damage, but scientists in Messina, Italy found depletion of reduced glutathione, decreased antioxidant activity, and oxidative damage in subjects exposed to the vapors of organic solvents. (Costa. 2006) All studies agree that early detection of toxicity is important to resolution.
The effects of solvent exposure upon the eyes and respiratory tract are realized quickly if concentrations are high enough, but workers are commonly unaware of a solvent’s effects at low concentrations. Often the only indication of exposure is an increased frequency of colds and respiratory infections. Over time, chronic bronchitis may develop. However, the instigating factor(s) may be out of mind and the relationship is never made. The ubiquity of certain solvents, especially formaldehyde, takes a toll on unsuspecting consumers. (Schenker. 1996) Wall finishes, carpeting, cabinetry, plywood, insulation, timber paneling, and even some shampoos, lotions, baby wipes, and body washes may contain formaldehyde. Some manufacturers will use unfamiliar synonyms to mask the presence of this proven carcinogen. Formalin, methanol, urea, methylaldehyde, and formic aldehyde are but a few. Tightness in the chest, breathing difficulty, unexplained rash, and swelling of the mouth and tongue are the more-common signs of exposure to formaldehyde. Changes in heart rate are not uncommon with over-exposure to any organic solvent, with “over-exposure” being the key modifier, however subjective that may be. (Morrowa. 1995)
An area lacking in study is reproductive health, but the little research already done points to solvents’ culpability. Small studies indicate that subjection to solvents that are particular to specific industries may induce decline in sperm motility. The painting and sheet metal trades and others that use naphtha, methyl ethyl ketone, xylene, toluene and the like are most likely to experience detrimental reproductive consequences. (Lemasters. 1999) Although tests in females are not nearly so definitive, infertility, spontaneous abortion, and reproductive cancers have been reported in some studies after chemical exposures. The ambiguity of testing in females may be due to multiple confounders that include poor methodology and small sample size. (Sharara. 1998)
Alternatives to harmful solvents are available, but, because they might demand more physical labor, are not the most popular items on the shelf. Baking soda can kill foul odors. Vinegar in water or cream of tartar in water can clean aluminum. Borax cleans the bathroom, and bleach + water will remove mildew from grout. TSP and water can clean almost anything. Dismissing solvents is not only a matter of “going green,” but also a matter of personal and family health. Thinking that your hobby is great fun, you might be surprised to hear that exposure to the solvents used in building models and in artwork during the year preceding childbirth has been associated with elevated risk of childhood leukemia. (Freedman. 2001)
Workplace Safety & Health Topics
Page last updated:July 20,2010
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