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Organic Solvents

  • Author: Jonathan S Rutchik, MD, MPH; Chief Editor: Tarakad S Ramachandran, MBBS, MBA, MPH, FAAN, FACP, FAHA, FRCP, FRCPC, FRS, LRCP, MRCP, MRCS  more...
 
Updated: May 02, 2014
 

Background

Organic solvents are a chemical class of compounds that are used routinely in commercial industries. They share a common structure (at least 1 carbon atom and 1 hydrogen atom), low molecular weight, lipophilicity, and volatility, and they exist in liquid form at room temperature. They may be grouped further into aliphatic-chain compounds, such as n -hexane, and as aromatic compounds with a 6-carbon ring, such as benzene or xylene. Aliphatics and aromatics may contain a substituted halogen element and may be referred to as halogenated hydrocarbons, such as perchloroethylene (PCE or PER), trichloroethylene (TCE), and carbon tetrachloride. Alcohols, ketones, glycols, esters, ethers, aldehydes, and pyridines are substitutions for a hydrogen group. Organic solvents are useful because they can dissolve oils, fats, resins, rubber, and plastics.

Organic solvents arose in the latter half of the 19th century from the coal-tar industry. Their application grew to be wide and diverse in both developed and developing countries. The introduction of chlorinated solvents in the 1920s led to reports of toxicity. Although solvents number in the thousands, only a few have been tested for neurotoxicity.

Workers in industries that use these agents may have occupational exposure, whereas other individuals may have environmental exposures if they live near industrial installations and/or have contact with contaminated water, soil, air, or food. Drinking water, shower water, ambient air, indoor air, and food, among other sources, are common routes of exposure to environmental toxins. Inhalation, ingestion, and dermal absorption are also important mechanisms of toxic exposure.[1, 2, 3] Exposures often involve mixtures of solvents. Some of these incidents may occur deliberately when an individual recreationally inhales paints, glues, and other products; these exposures are described in more detail in the Medscape Reference article Inhalants.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates worker exposure. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the American Congress of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) also publish standards for use in occupational settings in the United States.

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Pathophysiology

Short-term, high-level exposures such as those frequently reported in case reports can result in acute reversible and irreversible health effects that involve the CNS and PNS. In population studies, intermediate- and long-term, low-level exposures have led to reversible and nonreversible subclinical and clinical abnormalities in the CNS and PNS. In some cases, these exposures were estimated to be below acceptable levels, as designated in regulations for workers. Neurophysiologic, neuropsychological, and neuroimaging diagnostic tools have been used to evaluate individuals and groups exposed to organic solvents.

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Epidemiology

Frequency

United States

In 1987, NIOSH reported that 9.8 million workers were exposed to organic solvents in occupational settings. However, most occupational exposures involved solvent mixtures. Workers who use these agents include printers, paint manufacturers, painters, microelectronics workers, degreasers, dry cleaners, carpet layers, coating workers, gluers, dye workers, carpenters, anesthesia personnel, petrol filling workers, laboratory workers, inkers, and textile workers; others are those who work with polymers, pharmaceuticals, synthetic fabrics, agriculture products, refining, or in airplane refitting. Table 1 lists common sources of organic solvent exposures.

Table 1. Organic Solvents and Their Common Industrial Uses (Open Table in a new window)

Compound Industrial Uses
Acetone Cleaning solvent
Acrylamide Mining and tunneling, adhesives, waste treatment, ore processing
Benzene Fuel, detergents, paint removers, manufacture of other solvents
Carbon disulfide Viscose rayon, explosives, paints, preservatives, textiles, rubber cement, varnishes, electroplating
Ethylene oxide (ETO) Instrument sterilization
N- hexane Glues and vegetable extraction, components of naphtha, lacquers, metal cleaning compounds
Hydrogen sulfide Sulfur chemical manufacturing, by-product of petroleum processing, decay of organic matter
Methane Industrial settings
Methyl mercaptan Odorant in natural gas and fuels
Methyl-N- butyl ketone Many industrial uses
Methylene chloride (dichloromethane) Solvent, refrigerant, propellant
Organochlorine Insecticides
Organophosphates Insecticides
PCE Dry cleaning, degreaser, textile industry
Styrene Fiberglass component, ship building
Toluene Paint, fuel oil, cleaning agents, lacquers, paints and paint thinners
1,1,1-Trichloroethane (methyl chloroform) Degreaser and propellant
TCE Cleaning agent, paint component, decaffeination, rubber solvents, varnish
Vinyl chloride Intermediate for polyvinylchloride resins for plastics, floor coverings, upholstery, appliances, packaging
Xylene Paint, lacquers, varnishes, inks, dyes, adhesives, cements, fixative for pathologic specimens

Environmental exposures to organic solvents occur. Solvents are also present in home products. According to NIOSH, 49 million tons of organic solvents were produced in the United States in 1984. Contamination affecting community water supplies, food additives, or household chemicals is an important source of exposure. Well-water sampling, both in the United States and abroad, has revealed quantities of chlorinated hydrocarbons and other solvents. Health effects secondary to these exposures have been described.

Estimating rates of occupational exposure is difficult because of a variety of factors. Worker exposures vary even within the same job, exposures vary during a workday, many routes of absorption are possible, personal protective equipment (PPE) is used inconsistently, and solvents are commonly used in various mixtures. For environmental exposures, similar challenges exist. Industrial hygienists and risk-assessment scientists work to overcome these challenges.

Mortality/Morbidity

Details of morbidity are available in the History section below.

Age

Occupational exposures affect persons of working age. Environmental exposures affect persons of all ages.

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Contributor Information and Disclosures
Author

Jonathan S Rutchik, MD, MPH Associate Clinical Professor, Division of Occupational Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine; Neurology, Environmental and Occupational Medicine Associates (www.neoma.com)

Jonathan S Rutchik, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine, International Parkinson and Movement Disorder Society, Society of Toxicology, Western Occupational and Environmental Medical Association, American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Glenn Lopate, MD Associate Professor, Department of Neurology, Division of Neuromuscular Diseases, Washington University School of Medicine; Consulting Staff, Department of Neurology, Barnes-Jewish Hospital

Glenn Lopate, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine, Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Tarakad S Ramachandran, MBBS, MBA, MPH, FAAN, FACP, FAHA, FRCP, FRCPC, FRS, LRCP, MRCP, MRCS Professor Emeritus of Neurology and Psychiatry, Clinical Professor of Medicine, Clinical Professor of Family Medicine, Clinical Professor of Neurosurgery, State University of New York Upstate Medical University; Neuroscience Director, Department of Neurology, Crouse Irving Memorial Hospital

Tarakad S Ramachandran, MBBS, MBA, MPH, FAAN, FACP, FAHA, FRCP, FRCPC, FRS, LRCP, MRCP, MRCS is a member of the following medical societies: American College of International Physicians, American Heart Association, American Stroke Association, American Academy of Neurology, American Academy of Pain Medicine, American College of Forensic Examiners Institute, National Association of Managed Care Physicians, American College of Physicians, Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, Royal College of Surgeons of England, Royal Society of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Roberta J Seidman, MD Associate Professor of Clinical Pathology, Stony Brook University; Director of Neuropathology, Department of Pathology, Stony Brook University Medical Center

Roberta J Seidman, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, Suffolk County Society of Pathologists, New York Association of Neuropathologists (The Neuroplex), American Association of Neuropathologists

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Table 1. Organic Solvents and Their Common Industrial Uses
Compound Industrial Uses
Acetone Cleaning solvent
Acrylamide Mining and tunneling, adhesives, waste treatment, ore processing
Benzene Fuel, detergents, paint removers, manufacture of other solvents
Carbon disulfide Viscose rayon, explosives, paints, preservatives, textiles, rubber cement, varnishes, electroplating
Ethylene oxide (ETO) Instrument sterilization
N- hexane Glues and vegetable extraction, components of naphtha, lacquers, metal cleaning compounds
Hydrogen sulfide Sulfur chemical manufacturing, by-product of petroleum processing, decay of organic matter
Methane Industrial settings
Methyl mercaptan Odorant in natural gas and fuels
Methyl-N- butyl ketone Many industrial uses
Methylene chloride (dichloromethane) Solvent, refrigerant, propellant
Organochlorine Insecticides
Organophosphates Insecticides
PCE Dry cleaning, degreaser, textile industry
Styrene Fiberglass component, ship building
Toluene Paint, fuel oil, cleaning agents, lacquers, paints and paint thinners
1,1,1-Trichloroethane (methyl chloroform) Degreaser and propellant
TCE Cleaning agent, paint component, decaffeination, rubber solvents, varnish
Vinyl chloride Intermediate for polyvinylchloride resins for plastics, floor coverings, upholstery, appliances, packaging
Xylene Paint, lacquers, varnishes, inks, dyes, adhesives, cements, fixative for pathologic specimens
Table 2. Exposure levels Believed Safe for Workers
Compound Urine Blood Expired Air
Acetone Acetone, formic acid 100 mg/L Acetone Acetone
Benzene Total phenol 50 mg/g at the end of the shift, trans-trans- muconic acid Benzene Benzene before shift, 0.08 ppm; end exhaled, 0.12 ppm
Carbon disulfide 2-TTCA 5 mg/g* Carbon disulfide Carbon disulfide
ETO None None None
N- hexane 2,5-hexanediol 5 mg/g at the end of the shift, 2-hexanol, total metabolites N- hexane N- hexane
Hydrogen sulfide None None None
Methane None None None
Methyl mercaptan None None None
Methanol Formic acid 80 mg/g at the start of the work week, methanol 15 mg/g at the end of the shift None Methanol
Methyl-N- butyl ketone None 2,5-hexane dione None
Methylene chloride None MeCl2 MeCl2
Organochlorine None None None
Organophosphates None None None
PCE PCE, trichloroacetic acid PCE 1 mg/L PCE 10 ppm before the last shift of the week
Styrene End of the shift: mandelic acid (MA) 800 mg, phenylglyoxylic acid (PGA) 240 mg/g)



Before shift: MA 300 mg/g or PGA 100 mg/g



Styrene 0.02 mg/L at the start of the shift, 0.55 mg/L at the end of the shift None
Toluene Hippuric acid Toluene Toluene
1,1,1-Trichlorethane (methyl chloroform) TCA 10 mg/L at the end of the work week; total trichloroethanol at the end of the shift and at the end of the work week, 30 mg/L Total trichloroethanol 1 mg/L Methyl chloroform 40 ppm before the last shift of the work week
TCE TCE, TCA 100 mg/g at the end of the work week or TCA plus trichloroethanol 300 mg/g TCE at the end of the work week 4 mg/L TCE
Vinyl chloride None None None
Xylene Methylhippuric acid 1.5 g/g at the end of the shift Xylene Xylene
* TTCA - 2-thiothiazolidine 4-carboxylic acid.
Table 3. Recommended Exposure Limits, Organic Solvents
Compound ppm, mg/m,3
OSHA PEL as TWAs NIOSH REL as TWAs, IDLH ACGIH TLV, STEL
Acetone 1000 (2400) 250 (590), 2500 750 (1780) ceiling, 1000 (2380)
Acrylamide 0.3 (0.03), 60 level for carcinogenicity None
Benzene 10, 25 ceiling, 50 for 10 min 0.1, STEL 1, 500 10 (32)
Carbon disulfide 20, 30, 100 for 30 min 1 (3), 10 STEL (30), 500 10 (31)
ETO   < 0.1, < 0.18, 5 ceiling, 800 1 (1.8)
N- hexane 500 (1800) 50 (180), 1100 50 (176)
Hydrogen sulfide 20 ceiling, 50 for 10 min once only 10 ceiling, (15) for 10 min, 100 None
Methyl mercaptan 10 ceiling (20) 0.5 ceiling, (1) for 15 min, 150 None
Methanol 200 (260) 200 (260), 250 STEL (325), 6000 262 (200), 328 (250)
Methyl-n- butyl ketone 100 (410) None 5 (20)
Methylene chloride 25, 15 STEL for 15 min 2300 level for carcinogenicity 50 (174) ceiling
Perchloroethylene 100, 200 ceiling, 300 for 5 min in 3 h 150 level for carcinogenicity 25 (170), 100 (685)
Styrene 100, 200 ceiling, 600 for 5 min in 3 h 50 (215), 100 ST (425), 700 50 (213), 100 (428)
Toluene 200, 300, 500 for 10 min 100 (375), 150 STEL (560), 500 50 (188)
1,1,1-Trichlorethane (methyl chloroform) 350 (1900) Ceiling 350 (1900) for 15 min, 700 350 (1910), 450 (2460)
Trichloroethylene 100, 200 ceiling, 300 for 5 min in 2 h 1000 level for carcinogenicity 50 (269), 100 (1070)
Vinyl chloride 1, 5 for 15 min Not determined None
Xylene 100 (435) 100 (435), 150 STEL (655) 100 (434),150 (651)
Abbreviations—ACGIH = American Congress of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, IDLH = Immediately dangerous to life or health; NIOSH = National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, OSHA = Occupational Safety and Health Administration, PEL = permissible exposure limit, REL = recommended exposure limit; STEL = short-term exposure limit; TWA = time-weighted average.
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