Could Workplace Solvents Be Making Bad Workers?


A new study led by Harvard researchers found that workplace exposure to dangerous solvents found in paint fumes, glues, and degreasers could give way to permanent brain damage that might not be evident until decades later.

Researchers examined 2,143 retirees from the French national utility company during the study. They gathered and analyzed information on their lifetime exposure to chlorinated solvents, petroleum solvents, and benzene, as well as the timing of participants’ last exposure and lifetime dosage.

Benzene can be used to make plastics, rubber, dye, detergents and many other synthetic materials, while chlorinated solvents are frequently in dry cleaning solutions, engine cleaners, paint removers, and degreasers. Petroleum solvents, on the other hand, are found in carpet glue, furniture polishes, paint, paint thinner and even varnish.

Here are some things the researchers found:

• 26 percent of participants came into contact with benzene, 25 percent to petroleum solvents, and 33 percent to chlorinated solvents.

• After finishing memory and concentration skill tests 10 years after retirement, almost 60 percent showed impairment on one (or more) of the tests.

• The research realized that those with large amounts of recent exposure to solvents were at higher risk for memory and thinking deficits. Those with high, recent exposure to chlorinated solvents, for instance, were a whopping 65 percent more likely to have lower scores on tests of memory, visual attention, and task switching than participants who weren’t exposed to solvents.

“Solvents affect some of the last regions of the brain to develop, and those parts of the brain may be especially vulnerable to chemical exposures,” says study author Erika L. Sabbath, ScD, of Harvard School of Public Health. “Solvents chemically bind to brain tissues and over time can cause problems with the functions that those regions of the brain control.”

She continues by saying that if employers work to keep their employees safe with the proper respirators, less toxic products, and outstanding ventilation, it would both protect workers’ brain health and improve productivity. Plus, it could help lower workers’ post-retirement health costs, so they can stay healthy and in the workforce for as long as they see fit.

“If you work in an occupational setting where you’re regularly exposed to solvents, it’s your right to be given protective equipment because exposure to these chemicals is regulated,” Sabbath continues. “But in order for the protective equipment to be effective, it has to be used, even though it can be uncomfortable.”


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