Diseases Caused by Organic Solvents

1. Introduction and Definitions

Organic solvents are volatile compounds used in various industrial and commercial applications, including manufacturing, painting, degreasing, and cleaning. Common organic solvents include benzene, toluene, xylene, acetone, and methylene chloride. While these solvents are essential for many processes, exposure can lead to significant health problems, particularly affecting the nervous system, liver, kidneys, and skin. This article provides comprehensive information on diseases caused by organic solvents, targeting occupational health nurses and doctors.

2. Agent Causes the Disease

Exposure to organic solvents occurs primarily through inhalation of vapors, though it can also occur through dermal contact or ingestion. These solvents are lipophilic, allowing them to easily penetrate biological membranes and accumulate in fatty tissues, leading to systemic toxicity. Prolonged or high-level exposure can cause acute and chronic health effects, including neurotoxicity, hepatotoxicity, nephrotoxicity, and dermatitis.

3. Workers at Risk of This Disease

Several occupations and tasks put workers at higher risk of exposure to organic solvents, including:

  • Painters and Coaters: Using solvent-based paints, varnishes, and coatings.
  • Industrial Cleaners: Using solvents for degreasing and cleaning machinery and equipment.
  • Manufacturing Workers: Involved in the production of plastics, rubber, and other materials using solvents.
  • Laboratory Technicians: Using solvents in research and analytical procedures.
  • Automotive Workers: Using solvents in car repairs and maintenance.
  • Printing Industry Workers: Handling solvents in ink formulations and cleaning processes.

4. Symptoms

Symptoms of diseases caused by organic solvent exposure can vary depending on the type of solvent, level, and duration of exposure:

  • Acute Exposure: Symptoms may include headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, confusion, euphoria, and respiratory irritation (coughing, shortness of breath). High levels of exposure can lead to central nervous system depression, characterized by drowsiness, unconsciousness, and even death.
  • Chronic Exposure: Long-term exposure can result in chronic health issues such as neurobehavioral changes (memory loss, mood swings, cognitive impairment), liver damage (hepatitis, cirrhosis), kidney damage (glomerulonephritis, tubular necrosis), and chronic dermatitis.

5. Diagnosis

Diagnosing diseases caused by organic solvents involves a combination of clinical evaluation, occupational exposure assessment, and specific tests:

  • Medical History and Physical Examination: Detailed assessment of the patient's work history and symptoms.
  • Blood and Urine Tests: Measuring levels of solvent metabolites and biomarkers of exposure (e.g., transaminases for liver function, creatinine for kidney function).
  • Neurological Evaluation: Including tests for cognitive and motor function if neurological symptoms are present.
  • Liver and Kidney Function Tests: Monitoring for signs of organ damage.
  • Imaging Studies: X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs to detect organ damage, if necessary.

6. Treatment

Treatment for diseases caused by organic solvents focuses on managing symptoms and preventing further exposure:

  • Remove from Exposure: Immediate removal from the source of solvent exposure is crucial.
  • Symptomatic Treatment: Providing medications to manage respiratory, neurological, and gastrointestinal symptoms. This may include bronchodilators, antiemetics, and pain relievers.
  • Supportive Care: Including hydration, nutritional support, and monitoring of liver and kidney function.
  • Decontamination: Removing contaminated clothing and thoroughly washing the skin to reduce dermal exposure.
  • Long-term Monitoring: Regular follow-up to monitor for chronic health effects and overall health status.

7. Prevention

Preventing diseases caused by organic solvents involves implementing strict control measures in the workplace:

  • Engineering Controls: Using local exhaust ventilation, enclosed processes, and proper maintenance of equipment to reduce airborne exposure to solvent vapors.
  • Work Practices: Implementing safe work practices such as proper handling, storage, and disposal of solvents, and avoiding eating, drinking, or smoking in areas where solvents are used.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Providing and ensuring the use of appropriate respirators, protective clothing, gloves, and eye protection.
  • Health Surveillance: Regular health screenings, including liver and kidney function tests, neurological assessments, and monitoring of solvent levels in blood and urine for workers exposed to organic solvents.
  • Education and Training: Informing workers about the hazards of organic solvents and safe work practices to minimize exposure.

Occupational health professionals can substantially lower the occurrence of related illnesses, by recognizing the hazards of organic solvent exposure and applying effective preventive strategies,

Workplace Exposure Limits:

  1. acetone:

    OSHA PEL (8-hour TWA): 1000 ppm (parts per million).
    NIOSH REL (Up to 10-hour TWA): 250 ppm1.
  2. toluene:

    OSHA PEL (8-hour TWA): 200 ppm (parts per million).
    NIOSH REL (10-hour TWA): 100 ppm.

  3. White Spirit (Mineral Spirit):

    OSHA PEL: Not specifically listed in OSHA Table Z-1, but it falls under the general category of petroleum distillates.
    NIOSH REL: Not specified for white spirit, but it’s essential to follow good practices to minimize exposure.