What are organic solvents?
Organic solvents are carbon-based substances that can dissolve or disperse one or more substances. Many types of chemical substances are used as organic solvents, such as aliphatic hydrocarbons, aromatic hydrocarbons, amines, esters, ethers, ketones and nitrated or chlorinated hydrocarbons.
Organic solvents are used in paints, varnishes, lacquers, adhesives, glues, in cleaning and degreasing products and in the production of dyes, polymers, plastics, textiles, printing inks, agricultural and pharmaceutical products.
Industrial organic solvents may be known by different names and trade names and are often mixtures of various chemical substances.
Examples of common organic solvents
- petroleum ethers
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- methyl ethyl ketone
How can organic solvents affect me?
Workplace exposures to organic solvents have been associated with a wide variety of potential adverse health effects: some may arise from acute short-term exposures, others from chronic, repetitive and long-term exposures.
Did you know that...?
Certain organic solvents, including carbon disulfide, n-hexane, toluene, p-xylene, ethylbenzene, n-propylbenzene, styrene and trichloroethylene, have been classified as ototoxins. Research has shown that exposure to ototoxins can cause hearing loss. Exposure to high noise levels may increase the risk of hearing loss.
Possible serious health effects of organic solvents from metallurgical manufacturing or production*
• Irritation of the eyes, skin, nose and throat
• Wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and cough
• Effects on the nervous system, including central nervous system depression
Possible chronic health effects of organic solvents from metallurgical manufacturing or production*
• Nervous system effects, including peripheral neuropathy
• Dermatitis and dry skin
• Liver and kidney failure
• Other systemic effects, including cancer and reproductive disorders
When do workplace exposures occur?
One of the main sources of exposure of workers is inhalation of organic solvent vapours, especially when spraying paints, coatings, foams and solvent-based adhesive compounds. Other sources of exposure include cleaning/degreasing surfaces with solvents, handling, mixing and preparing paints and associated maintenance and cleaning of spraying equipment after use.
The fine aerosol fogs and vapors generated by spraying can be easily inhaled and the organic solvents and other components they contain can be easily absorbed into the lungs.
Direct contact of the organic solvent with the skin can cause skin irritation and dryness, leading to dermatitis and other skin diseases. In addition, some organic solvents can be absorbed through the skin, which can cause a number of systemic effects.
Sectors/applications where workplace exposures may occur
Examples of applications in manufacturing and metallurgical production and also in other sectors and processes where people may be exposed to organic solvents:
Metallurgical production, metallurgical manufacturing and related applications
• Painting of parts and equipment
• Cleaning and degreasing
• Decoating/removal of paint
• Oil, gas and chemical sectors
• Manufacture of furniture
What can I do to help protect workers?
Use appropriate controls
Companies should carry out a risk assessment in addition to determining exposure levels against exposure limits to know what control measures they may need.
If necessary, controls from the control hierarchy should be implemented and their effectiveness measured. For example, localised extraction systems (LEVs) can be highly effective engineering control, used in welding, sanding and many other applications.
Get the equipment you need
In addition to implementing other control measures, personal protective equipment (PPE), such as respiratory protective equipment (PRE), is usually used to minimise exposure of workers.
Respiratory protective equipment (PRE): air purifying equipment
3M has a range of EPRs that can help reduce exposure to dust, fog, metal fumes, as well as gases and vapours commonly found in metalworking. For example: disposable particulate masks, reusable half masks and full masks, as well as masks with air purifier and battery for heavy use combined with a variety of masks, head units and rugged helmets.
Respiratory protective equipment (PRE): half masks with air supply
3M it also has a wide variety of air-supplied masks, suitable for use in some of the most demanding working environments.
3M it can also provide many other health and safety solutions, such as:
• Head, face and eye protection
• Reusable and disposable earplugs
• Security solutions for communications
• Disposable clothing
• Protection against falls
• Solutions for confined spaces
A key component of an effective PPE programme is training, both for workers and for those responsible for health and safety at work.
For example, workers using PPE should be trained and understand the following:
• How PPE is used, its function and limitations
• Inspection, maintenance and cleaning of PPE, identification of defective PPE and disposal
• The correct fit and use of PPE
• The nature of all hazardous substances present and their potential health effects
Stay up to date
When selecting appropriate protective equipment, you should comply with local, provincial, regional or national regulations, laws and guidelines.
One of the tasks of occupational health and safety specialists is to monitor changes in legislation, occupational exposure limits, etc.
References and resources
NIOSH Workplace safety and health topics – Organic solvents. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/organsolv/
OSHA Safety and Health Topics - Solvents. https://www.osha.gov/solvents
Smedley, J, Dick, F and Sadhra, S. Oxford Handbook of Occupational Health (second edition). It's 2013.
In order to ensure the proper functioning of the active substance, it is necessary to establish a list of active substances. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/87-104/default.html
Dick, this is F. Solvent neurotoxicity. Occupate the Environ Med. 2006 Mar; 63(3): 221–226. it is not necessary/oem.2005.022400
ILO - Solvents in the Workplace. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---americas/---ro-lima/---sro it is not possible for the commission to take a decision on this
ILO - Chemical safety training modules, solvents. https://www.ilo.org/legacy/english/protection/safework/cis/products/safetytm/solvents.htm
Safety and Health Information Bulletin - Preventing hearing loss caused by chemical (Ototoxicity) and noise exposure. This Regulation shall be binding in its entirety and directly applicable in all Member States. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2018-124/pdfs/2018-124.pdf