In Factories And Offices
UE News, October 1993; UE News, November
1993 (two parts)
WHEREVER THEY WORK, be it offices or
factories, UE members use solvents on the job day in and day out. For example, when we
place metal objects in degreasing tanks, we are exposed to solvents like methylene
chloride or TCE (trichloroethylene, or just trichlor). We use solvents in lacquers and
paint thinners. Sometimes we use solvents like acetone and kerosene to clean off grease
spots or clean up oily areas. Epoxies and glues contain solvents, and we bake them they
emit solvent vapors. Most paints and all printing inks have a solvent base, and they give
off solvent vapors as they dry.
And these are just some of the many uses of solvents in industry.
If you work in an office setting, whether in a plant, a business or a
government agency, you are also regularly exposed to solvents.
For example, all felt marking pens contain a coloring agent dissolved in a
rapidly evaporating solvent. You can often smell the solvent when you take the tip off the
felt pen and write with it. (And if you forget to replace the plastic pen tip after using
it, the solvent quickly escapes and your good felt pen is now useless.) Also rubber
cements, widely used in offices, contain rapidly evaporating, often highly toxic solvents
like hexane. Even the white-out fluids used for correcting typing or for cleaning up
originals for copying contain toxic solvents.
If you use felt-tipped pens and rubber cements only occasionally,
youll get a brief solvent exposure and then normal room ventilation will clear out
the vapors (and the smell) in just a few minutes. But if you are in a building with many
businesses and offices, and if the building air is recirculated (as it is in most
businesses), then the level of solvent vapors in the building air can build up and
now you may have a case of "tight building syndrome."
In this case, youll notice a solvent-like smell in the office air,
even if you dont use solvents very much yourself. You may get frequent headaches
while at work and after a while, you realize that its not just your boss.
Some people in "sick buildings" suffer from nosebleeds while at work. So solvent
exposures on the job can contribute to sick building problems for everyone who works in
the building. (By the way, solvent vapors are not the only cause of these problems, other
chemicals and building conditions can cause them as well.)
The most common symptoms of overexposure to solvents are headaches,
dizziness and nausea. Most exposed people will suffer just one or two of these symptoms.
Very few individuals will suffer all three. But among a group of solvent exposed people,
each of these symptoms will usually be reported by some of the group. If this group of
people is in one building or in one area of the plant or building, this is a strong
indication of solvent overexposure. (All three of these symptoms are reversible, that is,
they will disappear over time and do no lasting harm if solvent exposure goes down. So
consider them early warning signals of solvent hazards.)
Also, overexposure to solvents, especially in liquid form, will often
cause skin irritation ("dermatitis"). Here the solvent may dissolve away the
waxy surface layer of the skin, causing itching, drying and cracking of the skin.
Sometimes exposed people develop allergic skin reactions. In this case the redness and
itching of the skin will spread from the area of contact usually your hands or arms
to other parts of the body, say to areas underneath your clothing like the upper
arms, back and chest.
The key to eliminating solvent skin problems is better protection from
solvent splashes and solvent sprays such as splash guards on equipment, and proper
gloves and protective clothing provided by management. Barrier protective creams and
lotions are also helpful in some situations. Usually over time, if proper safeguards are
taken, and medical treatment is given, skin irritation problems will go away. (The
exception to this are allergic skin reactions, which often dont go away, but get
worse over time. These require a sharp reduction in solvent exposure. If this doesnt
work, you may need to request transfer to another job within the plant.)
If solvent exposure continues over many years, many solvents can cause
serious damage to the liver or kidneys or both. For example, carbon tet (carbon
tetrachloride) is a potent liver toxin. Long-term exposure to it can cause serious liver
damage, and even death from liver failure. Thats why it is rarely used in industry
any more. Check for it on product labels or request the Material Safety Data Sheets
(MSDSs) on suspected products from management. If its still used in your plant or
office, tell your locals health and safety committee about it, or your local
officers. Demand that management substitute another product which doesnt contain
carbon tet such substitutes exist, and almost always their solvents will be less
(PART TWO, November 1993)
IN THE LAST ISSUE of the UE NEWS, this column discussed a number of the
health hazards of industrial solvents, and warned about the special dangers of solvents
such as carbon tetrachloride. Another solvent to avoid like the plague is benzene.
Overexposure to benzene has been proven to cause leukemia, a type of
cancer of the blood among exposed workers. In fact, benzene is the only solvent proven to
cause cancer, although several other solvents like TCE and perchloroethylene
("perc") are under suspicion for causing cancer and are presently being
Check for benzene on product labels and in Material Safety Data Sheets
(MSDSs). (By the way, benzine also called naphtha is a different chemical
than benzene, and does not cause cancer.) If you find benzene or benzene products being
used in your plant, work through your union to get rid of it and substitute a less
dangerous material. For example, toluene or toluene-containing products are often used as
By the way, many of us have one product in our household which frequently
contains benzene (or carbon tet), namely small bottles or cans of spot remover. Check the
label. If it says it contains benzene or carbon tet, get rid of it safely and buy another
bottle which doesnt contain these chemicals. If the label doesnt say what the
material contains often this is the case when the product is made in other
countries and exported to the U.S. play it safe and get another product which says
clearly what it contains.
Besides health hazards, many solvents also present fire hazards. The best
way to find out if the solvents in your plant or office are flammable is to check their
MSDSs. Typical flammable solvents are ether, amines, alcohols, gasolines, acetone and
In general, most solvents are flammable unless they are so-called
chlorinated hydrocarbon solvents, which usually contain the words chlorine or fluorine in
their chemical names. For example, carbon tet, TCE and perc (i.e., carbon tetrachloride,
trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene) are all non-flammable. Freons, all of which are
chlorine and fluorine-containing chemicals, are also non-flammable.
If flammable solvents are used in your plant, it is a life-and- death
matter to eliminate sources of ignition to prevent fires and explosions both where
the solvents are used and where they are stored. Your locals health and safety
committee should conduct routine inspections of departments which use these solvents.
There are four major types of fire hazards to look out for:
Eliminate all open flames in the area. For example, look out for gas
pilot lights in the area, welding operations (either routine or maintenance), lighted
matches or cigarettes.
Avoid heat buildup. Make sure there are no ovens nearby, or heat lamps,
or heating elements in electrical appliances. Any process which might result in hot
cinders or glowing metals could ignite flammable solvent vapors. Even overheated bearings
have been known in the past to ignite vapors.
Eliminate sources of sparks. Short circuits in electrical switches,
electric motors and frayed electrical wires can cause fires this requires regular
site monitoring. Auto or diesel engines can emit sparks in their exhaust. Also sparks can
be generated by static electricity for example, from metal tools or when pouring
flammable liquids from one metal container to another. To avoid sparks when pouring, it is
important to ground each of the metal containers, or at least to bond them with an
electrical wire and metal alligator clips before pouring.
The key to reducing exposure to solvent vapors is having a good exhaust
ventilating system, with the vent hood as close to the vapor source as possible. Other
important measures include:
Store solvents in a proper, enclosed safety storage cabinet.
Transfer solvents in capped labelled containers. Dont let solvents
sit out in uncovered containers.
Make sure solvent spills are wiped up promptly and store rags or
absorbent materials in closed containers.
Make sure management provides you with proper safety clothing and
Check whether other, safer solvents cant be substituted for those
now in use.