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Current Trends Organic Solvents in the Workplace

On March 31, 1987, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released Current Intelligence Bulletin #48: Organic Solvent Neurotoxicity. This is another in a series of NIOSH publications on specific chemical substances, physical agents, or safety hazards found in the workplace. The document, summarized below, is now available to the public*.

Acute exposure to organic solvents can impair manual dexterity, response speed, coordination, or body balance. Epidemiologic studies of workers chronically exposed to organic solvents have demonstrated reduced function of peripheral nerves and increases in the rates of adverse neurobehavioral effects. Such effects include reversible, subjective symptoms (e.g., fatigability, irritability, and memory complaints), sustained changes in personality or mood, and impaired intellectual function (e.g., decreased learning ability, memory, and ability to concentrate). Results of studies involving the chronic exposure of animals to a limited number of organic solvents support the observations of peripheral nervous system dysfunction and neurobehavioral effects in humans.

Approximately 49 million tons of industrial solvents were produced in the United States in 1984. They are used in paints, adhesives, glues, coatings, degreasing/cleaning agents, dyes, polymers, plastics, textiles, printing inks, agricultural products, and pharmaceuticals. An estimated 9.8 million workers in these industries may be exposed to organic solvents by either skin contact or inhalation.

Employers should institute educational programs to inform workers about materials to which they are exposed, potential health risks of such exposure, and safe work practices for handling these materials. Employers should also assess the conditions under which workers may be exposed to organic solvents, develop programs to survey the extent of worker exposure and the effectiveness of existing controls, improve these controls as needed, and consider establishing medical surveillance for the adverse health effects of excess exposure.

As prudent public health policy, NIOSH recommends that employers take all reasonable precautions to reduce exposures at least to the concentrations specified as permissible exposure limits (PELs) by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or to NIOSH's recommended exposure limits or the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienist's threshold limit values (if the latter two values provide a greater degree of protection). The three basic methods for limiting worker exposures to organic solvents are: 1) using engineering controls such as closed-system operations and exhaust ventilation, 2) isolating workers in closed booths from which they can use automated controls to run external operations, and 3) equipping workers with carefully selected and scrupulously maintained solvent-resistant gloves, aprons, boots, face shields, safety goggles, work suits, and respiratory protection. Reported by: Div of Standards Development and Technology Transfer, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, CDC. *Copies of CIB #48 can be obtained without charge from the Publications Dissemination Section, Division of Standards Development and Technology Transfer, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 4676 Columbia Parkway, Cincinnati, Ohio 45226; telephone: (513) 841-4287.

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