Prevention System Updates

Protect yourself from solvent exposure: our brains may never fully recover

Release Date:  Jun 11, 2014

People who are exposed to paint, glue or degreaser fumes at work may experience memory and thinking problems in retirement, decades after their exposure, according to a study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

"Our findings are particularly important because exposure to solvents is very common," says study author Erika L. Sabbath, from the Harvard School of Public Health. "Solvents pose a real risk to the present and future cognitive health of workers, and as retirement ages go up, the length of time that people are exposed is going up, too."

Among the study conclusions:

  • people with high recent exposure to solvents were at greatest risk for memory and thinking deficits
  • people with high exposure within the last 12 to 30 years showed impairment in almost all areas of memory and thinking
  • time may not fully lessen the effect of solvent exposure on some memory and cognitive skills when lifetime exposure is high.

The study involved 2,143 retirees from the French national utility company. Researchers assessed the retirees' lifetime exposure to chlorinated solvents, petroleum solvents, and benzene, including the timing of last exposure and lifetime dosage; 26% had been exposed to benzene, 33% to chlorinated solvents and 25% to petroleum solvents.

As part of the testing, participants took eight tests of their memory and thinking skills an average of 10 years after they had retired, when they were an average age of 66. Here's what the testing showed:

  • 59% of the participants had impairment on one to three of the eight tests
  • 23% had impairment on four or more tests
  • 18% had no impaired scores.

How to protect yourself and your employees

Exposure to solvents can occur through

  • inhalation
  • ingestion, e.g., a solvent-contaminated object, such as your fingers, food, or cigarette, comes into contact with your lips or tongue
  • skin contact or absorption through direct immersion, splashing, spilling, solvent-soaked clothing, and contact with solvent-wet objects

These suggestions can help you protect yourself and your employees:

  • where possible, replace solvents with less hazardous products
  • where solvents must be used, ensure the workspace has adequate ventilation
  • provide employees with safe work instructions and training, and personal protective equipment, such as respirators, rubber gloves, coveralls, welding jackets, or barrier creams
  • ensure the workspace has adequate ventilation
  • ensure your WHMIS program is up to date and compliant with legal requirements
  • promote safe personal hygiene. For example:
    • no eating, drinking, smoking, or chewing gum in areas contaminated with toxic chemicals
    • always wash or wipe hands clean before eating, drinking and smoking
    • always clean up and change out of contaminated clothing at shift end
    • wash work clothes separately from casual and other family members' clothes.