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Solvent Hazards
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, you’ll 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, you’ll notice a solvent-like smell in the office air, even if you don’t use solvents very much yourself. You may get frequent headaches while at work — and after a while, you realize that it’s 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 don’t go away, but get worse over time. These require a sharp reduction in solvent exposure. If this doesn’t 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. That’s 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 it’s still used in your plant or office, tell your local’s health and safety committee about it, or your local officers. Demand that management substitute another product which doesn’t contain carbon tet — such substitutes exist, and almost always their solvents will be less toxic.

(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 investigated.

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 benzene substitutes.

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 doesn’t contain these chemicals. If the label doesn’t 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 Stoddard Solvent.

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 local’s 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. Don’t 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 chemical goggles.

  • Check whether other, safer solvents can’t be substituted for those now in use.

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