Solvent Vapors: What Are the Risks?

As we said in yesterday’s Advisor, many solvents evaporate quickly, which results in harmful solvent vapors in the air, creating not only fire risks but also health risks for employees.

Inhalation is a common risk of working with solvents. Once inhaled, solvent vapors can quickly move into the bloodstream.

  • Inhalation of solvent vapors will often start with symptoms such as headache or dizziness.
  • Workers who inhale vapors in high enough concentrations might also feel nausea and might vomit.
  • After being exposed to solvent vapors, employees might feel tired and drowsy for a while.
  • Many people will also experience a sore throat along with respiratory irritation and trouble breathing.
  • Blurred vision may also occur after breathing a heavy concentration of solvent vapor.
  • And, if workers are exposed to high concentrations of solvent vapors for too long, they could become unconscious.

Fortunately, in cases of inhalation of low concentrations of solvent vapors, symptoms often pass relatively quickly without causing permanent damage.
Workers who are exposed to solvent liquids and vapors for many years, however, can suffer more serious health problems.

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The long-term effect of solvent exposure depends on the type of solvent as well as the length of exposure. Examples of long-term health hazards include:

  • Throat and lung damage
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Central nervous system damage
  • Cancer, which can occur in the liver, kidneys, and lungs.

First Aid for Solvent Exposures

The first-aid procedures discussed below are appropriate for most solvents. However, you should train employees to always consult the label and SDS for specific first-aid procedures for the particular solvent.

  • If symptoms associated with breathing solvent vapors—such as dizziness or upset stomach—develop, move away from the work area and get some fresh air. If that doesn’t help, seek medical attention.
  • If solvent splashes into the eyes, go immediately to an eyewash station, hold eyelids open, and flush the eye with water for at least 15 minutes. If the eye still burns or you have difficulty seeing, seek medical attention.
  • If solvent gets on the skin, wash the area immediately with soap and water. Remove any clothing that was splashed. If skin irritation or a rash develops later, see a doctor.
  • If solvents are accidentally swallowed, immediate medical attention is necessary. First aid for ingestion of solvents varies depending on the substance involved. Check the label and SDS and/or call the poison center. Even with first aid, get to a doctor right away.

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