- Solvents are liquids or gases that can dissolve (or disperse) other substances to form a solution.
- Solvents are used in many industries due to the nature of their dissolving properties.
- They are commonly found in cleaning materials, adhesives, printing materials, dry cleaning and paint thinners.
- Organic solvents (containing carbon) are widely used and are generally toxic and flammable.
- Solvents can enter the body by inhalation of vapors or sprays, absorption through skin on contact, or by accidental swallowing.
- General effects include toxicity to the nervous system, reproductive damage, liver and kidney damage, respiratory impairment, cancer, and dermatitis.
- Employers should refer to the OSHA website for regulations concerning use of solvents.
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By definition, solvents are liquids or gases that can dissolve (or disperse) other substances to form a solution – water is the most abundant solvent on earth. Solvents are used in many industries due to their dissolving properties. For example, they are commonly found in cleaning materials, adhesives (eg. acetone, methyl acetate, ethyl acetate), printing materials, dry cleaning (eg. tetrachloroethylene) and paint thinners (eg. toluene, turpentine). They are also used to clean tools and specialist equipment. As a consequence, millions of employees across the US are exposed to solvents on a regular, and often daily, basis.
Solvents are either organic (containing carbon in their chemical structure) or inorganic (don’t contain carbon in their structure, eg. water). The latter are likely to be used in specialist laboratory-based research or chemical engineering processes. Organic solvents are widely used and are often toxic. They are mostly flammable – especially those which are highly volatile.
Health Effects of Exposure to Solvents
There are three main ways in which solvents can enter the body:
- Inhalation of vapors or sprays
- Absorption through skin
- Accidental swallowing
Volatile, vapor-producing solvents can be inhaled into the lungs with subsequent entry into the bloodstream. Industrial processes often use sprays that cause mists of solvents to become airborne, thus irritating the nose, throat and bronchial tubes. Solvents are often absorbed through the skin on contact, causing dryness, redness and irritation. Once absorbed, solvents can travel to other parts of the body via the bloodstream. Although accidental swallowing of solvents is rare, eating food with contaminated hands must be avoided. Toxic effects depend on the solvent used, as well as the amount and length of exposure, but can include toxicity to the nervous system, reproductive damage, liver and kidney damage, respiratory impairment, dermatitis and cancer.
Employers are required to ensure that employees have access to Materials Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) to provide guidance on safe handling, storage, use and disposal of solvents. Employees should work in well-ventilated areas (or fume hoods) and away from environments that could potentially cause fire risk. Solvents should be stored correctly and with appropriate labeling. Employers should refer to the OSHA website for standards associated with use of solvents in the workplace.
OSHA Safety and Health Topic: Solvents
U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration www.osha.gov
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
NIOSH Topic: Organic Solvents
Medical Director Review
Exposure to Solvents and Risk of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma: Clues on Putative Mechanisms – Vineis et al. 16 (3): 381 – Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention