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Preventing toxic exposures: workplace lessons in safer alternatives.

Lichterman J; Brown-Williams H; Delp L; Quinn M; Quint J
Perspectives 2010 Jul; 5(1):1-10
Luis, an auto mechanic in his 20s, gradually noticed that his hands and feet tingled and felt numb. His symptoms got worse over the following months, spreading up his arms and legs and into his torso. He was examined by a doctor of occupational medicine, who suspected that Luis had nerve damage caused by exposure to chemicals he used at work. Every day for nearly two years, Luis had used up to nine spray cans of a brake cleaner. Further investigation showed that the product he used contained 50-60% n-hexane, a chemical known since 1964 to cause nerve damage. Luis's doctor reported his case to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). Occupational health specialists there investigated the possibility that other auto mechanics had suffered nerve damage. They studied a large auto dealership and surveyed California neurologists, and quickly found two similar cases. CDPH developed diagnosis and treatment guidelines for physicians and issued a health hazard advisory to alert workers and employers in the vehicle repair industry about the hazards of n-hexane. CDPH staff also began working with the Institute for Research and Technical Assistance (IRTA) and businesses to develop and test safer, water-based aerosol brake cleaners. Why was a chemical known to be hazardous put into a brake cleaner used by workers and consumers? N-hexane was used to replace methylene chloride and other toxic chlorinated solvents. New environmental regulations to protect the public had been promoted to reduce solvents in the air and wastewater. However, manufacturers did not consider the health hazards of n-hexane, the substitute chemical-especially its effect on workers, who use it in much larger quantities than the average consumer. The larger problem is the lack of regulations that prohibit the use of toxic products and mandate the use of safer alternatives. Luis's story demonstrates what can happen when we fail to include worker health in our efforts to protect the community and the environment from toxic chemicals.
Exposure-levels; Hazards; Chemical-cleaning; Chemical-hypersensitivity; Chemical-properties; Chemical-reactions; Environmental-hazards; Environmental-exposure; Nerve-damage; Nervous-system; Nervous-system-disorders; Nervous-system-function; Neuromotor-system; Neuromotor-system-disorders; Neuromuscular-function; Neuromuscular-system; Neuromuscular-system-disorders; Automobile-repair-shops; Solvents
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Public Health Institute
Page last reviewed: October 29, 2021
Content source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Education and Information Division