Written by GlueGuard, BWA Associate Member
The vast majority of industries such as automotive, aerospace, general manufacturing and biomedical need to adhere to strict parts cleaning regulation. To do so effectively and inexpensively, most resort to the use of solvent-based cleaners, such as acetone, alcohol, methanol, kerosene, petroleum and more.
Solvent-based cleaners work by dissolving away the dirt, grease, oil or paints. They’re highly corrosive substances which makes them effective but also increases the rink of health hazards. Most solvent-based cleaners contain mineral spirits, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), as well as chlorinated solvents like xylenes, benzene, and trichloroethane, all of which pose serious environmental, economic and health concerns.
Working with solvent-based cleaners may appear cost-effective in the short term but can put your employees at serious risk of developing short-term and long-term health issues. Even taking the necessary precautions such as wearing gloves only slightly reduces the risks as solvents can enter the human body when you breathe them. The solvents can also penetrate the skin and get into the body fat in the skin, nerves and brain tissue.
The short-term dangers of working with solvent-based cleaners include irritation of the eyes, lungs, and skin (a condition known as dermatitis). A large number of people working with solvents report severe headaches, nausea, dizziness, and light-headedness. The concerns don’t stop there: exposure to solvents may impair your coordination which increases your risks of having an accident. The high concentration of VOCs in most solvent-based cleaners also makes them highly flammable which poses additional risks for employees in many industries.
Many of the toxic effects of solvent-based cleaners don’t show up until much later. Doctors are raising concerns about the link between exposure to solvents and an increased risk of cancer. A recent study described some of the long-term health effects of solvent exposure, including increased incidence of leukaemia in employees exposed to benzene, renal cancers in those, working with chlorinated hydrocarbons, and scleroderma in response to mixed solvents. There are also concerns that working with solvent-based products can lead to personality changes, memory impairments, and neurological deficits, though more research is needed to confirm the findings.
The problem is that, even with precautions in place, exposure is difficult to get under control as the solvents (particularly petroleum solvents) evaporate rapidly. In some industries, such as industrial degreasing, dermal uptake of the solvent is almost impossible to prevent.
The relatively low cost of solvent-based cleaners makes them a widely popular choice in a range of industries, looking for effective and inexpensive parts cleaning supplies. However, exposure to solvents can lead to a range of acute and chronic health issues, amongst which an increased risk of cancer. An alternative is to use water-based cleaners which typically contain little to no VOCs and minimize your employees’ occupational health hazards.