Toluene is a highly useful chemical found in a number of industrial and consumer products, including paints, metal cleaners, adhesives, nail polish, and printing inks. Toluene vaporizes when exposed to air at room temperature. That can result in serious health problems for workers who inhale even small amounts of toluene on a regular basis. Toluene is also highly volatile and when the atmospheric concentration is high enough, even a distant flame or nearby static charge can spark a flashback explosion.
Negative health effects of exposure to toluene
Anyone who has spent time in an automobile paint shop or printing plant knows what toluene smells like. It has a sweet, yet sharp odor.
Exposure to small amounts of toluene can result in sore throat, irritated nose, headache, dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, and mild euphoria. These effects will usually go away after a person gets some fresh air. It should be noted however, that regular alcohol consumption can inhibit the body’s ability to remove toluene from the blood stream.
For people who are repeatedly exposed to vaporous toluene, the effects are far more serious. The negative effects of long-term toluene exposure can include:
- Kidney damage
- Acute lung injury
- Cardiac arrhythmia
- Decreased cognitive ability
- Tinnitus and hearing loss
- Occupational asthma
- Memory loss
In very high concentrations, toluene exposure can result in unconsciousness or death. Occupational deaths from toluene are rare though. Most deaths result from recreational solvent-sniffing or “huffing”.
Avoiding the possibility of injury
Workers who use substances containing toluene cannot entirely escape exposure to toluene. However, they can take these measures to minimize the potential consequences of toluene exposure:
- For cleaning or degreasing purposes, use a water-based solvent whenever possible.
- When using liquids containing toluene, use the smallest amount needed to accomplish the task.
- Use gloves when handling or applying liquids containing toluene.
- Use a respirator and goggles or face shield when applying paints containing toluene.
- Make sure the workspace is properly ventilated with outside air.
- Wash your hands after handling liquids containing toluene to avoid accidental ingestion.
People who experience negative health effects from toluene exposure in the workplace may be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. Speak with an attorney if you have questions about filing a claim.