Recently a young Christchurch boy died after inhaling butane from an aerosol can. Tragic as it is we need publicity around events such as this to serve as a warning to others of the dangers of misusing hazardous substances. In 2000 Butane was reported as the substance implicated in over 50% of solvent related deaths in the UK. It is we adults who have the responsibility to inform and educate our young people about these known hazards to health, and to intervene when we become aware of their risk-taking behaviour is their tendency is to ignore us. Protecting our children often involves protecting them from themselves and their peers when they lack the knowledge to make good decisions.

There is a similar responsibility amongst adults, one to another, in a working environment. Solvents are common in our everyday lives, and butane is just one of these. Solvents are commonly found in paints, adhesives, cleaning agents, industrial coatings, printing inks, thinners, degreasers, and pharmaceutical products such as deodorants, shaving foams, hair sprays and dyes, nail polishes and nail polish remover.

The precise effect of solvent exposure depends on the chemical involved but generally speaking, overexposure to solvents affects the central nervous system, causing headaches, nausea, dizziness, clumsiness, drowsiness, and other effects like those of drunkenness. The symptoms of short-term overexposure usually clear up within hours of exposure stopping but, as with drinking alcohol, these symptoms can increase your chances of having an accident. However, in extreme cases, unconsciousness and death can result from exposure to very high concentrations of solvent vapours.

Long term exposure to solvents can also lead to kidney and liver damage, damage to the brain and nervous system and it can affect fertility. Long-term effects on the nervous system may include problems with concentration, sleep disorders and personality disorders. Some solvents (e.g. chloroform and benzene) are carcinogenic. An Australian study conducted in 2000 found that every year one in 10 men vs one in 50 women developed a cancer as a result of workplace exposures to carcinogens. The links between exposure to common solvents and disorders such as testicular cancer have not yet been conclusively proven but damage to the central nervous system and the major body organs has been established.

Typically solvents enter the body by inhalation of the vapour, and by absorption through the skin.

Common practices such as removing paints and adhesives from the skin by rubbing with a rag soaked in the solvent on a daily basis hugely increases the amount of solvent entering the body. The solvent dissolves the skin’s natural oils which are the skin’s first line of defence against foreign substances thereby increasing the absorption rate into the bloodstream and the lymph system. Dryness and cracking of the skin on the hands, particularly around fingernails and finger joints are symptoms of depletion of the skin’s natural oils. In some cases skin rashes and irritation will also occur, and some individuals may become more susceptible to bruising. Solvents splashes in the eye will cause irritation and redness and some are capable of inflicting permanent damage.

Overseas studies have shown that solvent exposure has an additive effect, particularly when combine with alcohol intake. Diagnosis of solvent exposure and neurotoxicity is not easy and the medical profession typically treats the symptoms unless work exposure is suspected or informed, or the effects have reached the chronic symptom levels. Generally, the greater the exposure, the more severe the symptoms.

Identifying those at risk is the first step in managing solvent related hazards. This should be done by identifying the nature of the substance from safety data sheets. Where the solvent is atomised through spray apparatus or otherwise able to vaporise into the working environment air sampling should occur to quantify and measure concentrations against workplace exposure standards. Reducing the number of people exposed, and their exposure times is an administrative control to reduce risk. Where this is required workplace air monitoring on an annual basis is recommended.

Management of the hazards associated with solvents, as with other hazardous substances, is to prevent the exposure where possible; and to minimise the risk through engineering controls such as the use of localised exhaust ventilation, and containment. Appropriate personal protective equipment such as respirators, gloves, face shields or safety glasses must be used alongside other controls where actual exposure can not be prevented. Equally, good personal hygiene is important.

Distressing as it is that young lives are lost in the manner of the young man in Christchurch, it is shattering to families that their loved ones toil through their working lives only to be prematurely taken by a disease arising from their work exposures before they have a chance to enjoy their grandchildren and retirement.

With estimates of over 1700 deaths per year in NZ potentially attributable to workplace exposures as opposed to injuries, we should all be thinking continuously about looking after our health and the health of their loved ones.

For help with identifying and analysing your workplace exposures call the experienced team of occupational hygienists, safety specialists, and occupational health advisers at TriEx.

Rowly Brown – Safety Specialist