Effects of Solvents

Posted February 3, 2021

“Millions of workers are exposed to solvents every year in the construction industry. Solvents and the vapors they emit pose both short and long-term hazards for Laborers,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “With new research showing that continued solvent exposure causes permanent effects on the brain, protecting workers from these hazards is more important than ever.”

Solvents are found in adhesives, carpet glues, cleaning fluids, epoxy resins, hardeners, lacquers, mastics (asphalt or coal-tar), paints, paint thinners and primers. The most common way workers are exposed to solvents is by inhaling the vapors they emit, although workers can also be exposed through skin contact or ingestion. Most cases of overexposure are due to skin absorption, such as when workers don’t wear gloves to apply solvent-based materials. Because there are many different kinds of solvents, the effects they cause can vary.

Short-Term Effects of Solvents

Short-term exposure to solvents is known to cause lack of coordination, dizziness, headaches, nausea, stomach pains, skin rashes, cracking or bleeding skin and irritation to the eyes, nose and throat. Continued exposure to solvents can also cause blindness, harm the liver and kidneys, increase risk for irregular heartbeats and affect the nervous system. Some solvents have also been identified as carcinogens, and research from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has recently linked solvent exposure to breast cancer.

Studies also show that in addition to being toxic, some solvents are also ototoxic, which means they contribute to even greater hearing loss in noisy environments.

Long-Term Cognitive Effects of Solvents

Chronic exposures, or even one large exposure, can have serious implications on worker health. A study in the medical journal Neurology found that workers who were consistently exposed to high levels of solvents during their lifetime had significantly higher levels of brain impairment even years later.

The study found that 59 percent of workers had difficulty with at least one of the eight memory and thinking skills tested. Results also showed that workers with high, recent exposures to solvents were much more likely to have problems with memory exercises, visual attention and task switching compared to those who weren’t exposed.

“We also saw some cognitive problems in those who had been highly exposed much longer ago, up to 50 years before testing. This suggests that time may not fully lessen the effect of solvent exposure on some memory and cognitive skills when lifetime exposure is high,” said study author Erika Sabbath of Harvard School of Public Health.

Because of this, workers with a history of exposure to solvents could benefit from regular cognitive screening as well as screening for heart issues to help catch problems early. Retired workers could also benefit from mentally stimulating activities, such as learning a new skill, to help keep brain functions sharp.

What Solvents Will You Be Working With?

Workers should take an inventory of what solvents they will use prior to beginning work. This includes reading the label and safety data sheet (SDS) for each solvent and understanding how to use each solvent properly. Whenever possible, replace solvent-based cleaners, paints and lacquers with water-based substitutes or safer chemicals if they are available.

After taking an inventory of solvents and their hazards, workers should consider how each solvent will be used. For example, if solvents will be used in an enclosed space, proper ventilation systems are needed to allow sufficient airflow and prevent the buildup of hazardous vapors. If solvents will be applied by hand, workers should review the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) needed, such as gloves and goggles. Work practices should also be put in place to prevent splashing, aerosolizing or using more solvents than the job calls for.

Protecting Workers from Solvents

Follow these practices when working with solvents to eliminate or reduce exposures:

  • Immediately seek fresh air if you begin to feel dizzy, uncoordinated, nauseous or experience headaches when working with solvents.
  • Keep lids on solvent containers when they are not in use.
  • Wear gloves appropriate to the solvent being used, as well as long sleeves and other clothing that covers the skin.
  • Don’t get solvents on your skin and wash your hands before you smoke, eat or drink. Never eat or smoke in the work area.
  • Never use solvents to clean substances from your skin or clothing; replace any clothing that becomes soaked with solvents.
  • Work with solvents only where there is fresh air. If you have to work indoors, use an exhaust fan to pull the vapors away from you and another fan to pull in air from outside the room.
  • Use at least a half-mask respirator with a black organic-vapor cartridge. Respirator cartridges must be changed regularly – often once per shift or more. Paper dust masks and N95s will not protect against solvents.

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