REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH AND THE WORKPLACE

Solvents

Exposure to some organic solvents could increase your chances of having a miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm birth, a low birthweight baby, or a baby with a birth defect. Many solvents also pass into breast milk. Here, you can learn more about what you can do to reduce your exposure for a healthier pregnancy.

What are organic solvents?

These are organic chemicals, usually liquids, that are used in many workplaces.

Solvents are chemicals, usually liquids, used to dissolve other substances.  Some common solvents that might have adverse health effects include perchloroethylene, benzene, toluene, turpentine, methyl acetate, hexane, chloroform, and xylene.

Why should I be concerned about exposure?

Not all solvents are hazardous to you or your pregnancy, but some studies have linked certain solvents with birth defects, miscarriages, low birth weight, and preterm birth. The studies linking solvents to these problems are limited and results differ because workers may use more than one solvent at a time and it is hard to know which solvent is causing a problem, but many solvents containing carbon (called organic solvents) or chlorine (called chlorinated solvents) have been linked to some level of increased reproductive risk. Many solvents also pass into breast milk.

Who is exposed to solvents?

  • Laboratory workers
  • People who work in printing shops
  • Painters
  • Dry cleaners
  • Metalworkers
  • Oil and chemical industry workers
  • Artists
  • Cosmetologists, beauticians, and nail salon technicians

What is not known?

  • We don’t know what causes most miscarriages, birth defects, and other reproductive problems. If you work with solvents and have a miscarriage or baby with a birth defect, we often can’t tell if it was caused by exposure to solvents or if it was caused by something else.
  • Guidelines for safe levels of exposure to some solvents have been developed (OSHA PELs and NIOSH RELs) but these were developed for normal adult non-pregnant workers.  Most solvents do not have guidelines for exposure limits.
  • Often we don’t know what levels of exposure to certain solvents are safe. If you work with solvents, talk to your doctor about your working conditions or contact us.  

What can I do to reduce or eliminate exposure?

  • If you are pregnant, talk to your employer to find out what solvents are used in your workplace.  If the solvents you work with might be hazardous to your health or pregnancy, or you aren’t sure if they might be hazardous, talk to your doctor or contact us.
  • If you work with solvents that might be hazardous to your health or your pregnancy, see if it’s possible to avoid duties with solvent exposure during pregnancy and breastfeeding. If this is not possible, there are ways you can reduce exposure:
    • Increase ventilation as much as possible. Open a window or a door to bring in fresh air while using these products if possible.
    • Avoid breathing solvent vapors, skin contact, or splashing near your eyes or mouth.
    • Find out what solvents are in use, and wear the right personal protective equipment (PPE).
    • If you get a solvent on your skin or clothes, wash your skin or change your clothing as soon as you can.
    • If you are working with solvents in a laboratory, identify a certified ventilation hood and use it correctly for solvent work.
  • Keep in mind that smelling or not smelling a chemical doesn’t mean you are safe or not safe. Harmful levels of chemicals cannot always be smelled, and some much less hazardous chemicals have an odor.
  • Solvents can be carried into the home on shoes and clothing. Find tips on reducing take-home exposures.

Where can I get more information?

Page last reviewed: April 20, 2017