Why VOCs are Regulated – Health Effects of Solvents and VOCs

Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK), Isopropyl Alcohol, Acetone, Xylene/Toluene, and Styrene are prominent among a long list of hazardous solvents that have been used for decades in innumerable industrial processes. These products produce VOCs and other toxic products that are dangerous to humans and the environment. MEK and Xylene, for example, are toxic and emit a strong odour. Because workplaces are typically indoors and VOCs have a low flashpoint, harmful levels can build quickly, endangering worker safety. Occupational exposure to solvents is widespread. In 1987, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimated that 9.8 million workers were potentially exposed to organic solvents. At that time, NIOSH also indicated that the population of exposed workers was likely to increase (i). A US Congressional Report, “Chemical Dangers in the Workplace” in 1976 stated that “the threat posed to the health of workers by toxic substances … causes an estimated 100,000 deaths and 390,000 illnesses every year … most of these tragedies result from exposure to toxic substances, especially chemicals, in the workplace.” The toxic effect of solvents on humans is felt short and long-term. Acute exposure can result in loss of coordination, reduced speed of response, and a general feeling of drunkenness. Long-term exposure can result in decreased learning and memory, reduced ability to concentrate, changes in personality, hearing loss (ii), neurotoxicity, and cognitive impairment affecting central nervous system (iii). There are a few well-documented cases of long-term brain damage (iv). The VOCs emitted by solvents also increase the production of ground-level smog which poisons many urban environments. _____________________________________