Solvents are used to dissolve substances or for cleaning and must be used with caution.
What are solvents?
Solvents are liquids or gases that can dissolve or extract other substances. They are used to dissolve grease, oil, and paint; to thin or mix pigments, paint, glue, pesticides, and epoxy resins; to clean electronics, automotive parts, tools, and engines; and to make other chemicals. How might I be exposed to solvents?
Products that contain solvents include paint, ink, coatings, household cleaners, dry cleaning fluid, spot removers, adhesives, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, nail polish remover, microelectronics, automotive products, metal and vapor degreasers, paint strippers and thinners, refrigerants, foam-blowing agents, and coolants.
Industries that use solvents include dry cleaning, painting, printing, soap manufacturing, paint removing, textile manufacturing, asphalt paving, manufacturing of printed circuit boards and semiconductors, cleaning of printed circuit boards, agriculture and food production, pesticide application, hospitals, oil painting, and art restoration.
The term "solvents" usually refers to organic solvents, which contain carbon. Organic solvents can be classified in three main types: oxygenated solvents, hydrocarbon solvents, and halogenated solvents. Oxygenated solvents contain oxygen and are synthesized from other chemicals. Hydrocarbon solvents contain hydrogen and are derived mainly from petroleum. Halogenated solvents contain one or more of the halogen elements: chlorine, bromine, fluorine, or iodine. Most halogenated solvents contain chlorine and are then called chlorinated solvents.
Examples of oxygenated solvents are alcohol, esters, glycol ethers, and ketones, including methyl ethyl ketone. Examples of hydrocarbon solvents are acetone, acetonitrile, benzene, dioxane, gasoline, hexane, kerosene, methanol, phenol, styrene, toluene, turpentine, xylene, and aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons. Examples of halogenated solvents are carbon tetrachloride, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chlorobenzene, chloroform, ethylene dichloride, methylene chloride, perchloroethylene (tetrachlorethylene), 1,1,1-trichloroethane (methyl chloroform), and trichloroethylene.
Because some solvents deplete the ozone layer, their use and production have been phased out. Examples are CFCs, carbon tetrachloride, and 1,1,1-trichloroethane.
You can be exposed to solvents by breathing them, absorbing them through your skin, or swallowing them. How can solvents affect my health?
At home, you can be exposed to solvents by using cleaning products, personal care products, nail polish remover, paints, glues, adhesives, and other household products that contain solvents. You may also be exposed if you dry clean your clothes, which will release small amounts of perchloroethylene into the air, or if you use a laundromat that contains dry cleaning machines.
You can be exposed to solvents at work if your work involves dip cleaning, vapor degreasing, manufacturing that uses glues and adhesives, paint stripping, fueling, transferring flammable solvents, painting, offset printing, dry cleaning, installing carpets, and cleaning electronics, automotive parts, engines, and circuit boards. You may be exposed if you manufacture soap, printed circuit boards, semiconductors, personal care products, pharmaceuticals, or textiles. You can be exposed if you work in a hospital, manufacturing factory, agricultural or food facility, or art restoration facility. You can also be exposed to solvents on military bases.
Exposure to a massive amount of solvents can cause sudden death. Prolonged exposure to solvents can cause blindness, irregular heartbeat, and damage to the kidneys, liver, lungs, and central nervous system.
Some solvents are listed as "reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens" in the Eleventh Report on Carcinogens, published by the National Toxicology Program, and can cause cancer. Examples are acetonitrile, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, chloroform, perchloroethylene, and trichloroethylene.
Exposure to glycol ethers may cause damage to a developing fetus, and low fertility in men.
Regular exposure to solvents can cause memory and hearing loss, mental illness, depression, fatigue, confusion, dizziness, feeling drunk or "high," lack of coordination, headache, nausea, stomach pains, skin rashes, cracking or bleeding skin, and irritated eyes, nose, and throat. Exposure to solvent vapors can cause hoarseness, coughing, lung congestion, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.
If children are exposed to high levels of solvents at home, they may suffer from asthma.
If you think your health has been affected by exposure to solvents, contact your health care professional.
For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.
Organic Solvents (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)
Solvents (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)
Solvents in Construction (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)
Solvents in the Workplace (American Lung Association)
Solvents. Haz-Map (National Library of Medicine)
Last Updated: November 06, 2008