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Organic Solvents Linked to Heart Defects

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heart defect and organic solvent link discussed iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Most of us know that prenatal care is essential to the health and well-being of both mother and baby.

After the initial excitement of seeing that little blue “yes” on the pregnancy test, a search for the perfect obstetrician is made, life styles are changed and bad habits put aside for the duration of the pregnancy.


All these changes are made for the sake of giving this new little one the best possible start in life. It’s rare that an expectant mother doesn’t immediately seek out the best way to ensure a healthy baby once she knows she’s pregnant.

But, what if it’s not just the things you do during pregnancy that impact the future health of your unborn child?

What if the things you do -- or are exposed to -- before pregnancy occurs cause harm to the child before conception occurs? According to a new study, exposure to certain chemicals in the workplace before pregnancy occurs may lead to heart defects in children yet to be born.

Heavily used in industrial environments, organic solvents are extremely common. Based on hydrocarbons and containing carbon atoms, organic solvents are the chemical miracle that melts old nail polish from your fingernails, removes spots, thins your paint (turpentine), removes glue, and enables dry cleaners to work their magic. Organic solvents are also used in detergents as well as perfumes.

Organic solvents are everywhere.

Unfortunately, organic solvents can enter into the body through the lungs, skin, and even the mouth.

According to some results from the National Birth Defects Prevention Study, workplace exposure, that is, too much exposure to organic solvents increases the risk of several different types of heart defects at birth.

The increased risk was not limited to exposure after pregnancy occurred. Study authors found that women who were exposed as much as a month prior to conception, as well as those exposed during the first trimester, shared an increased risk of heart defects to their unborn -- and in some cases not yet conceived -- babies.

The findings were based on a review of 5000 participants in the National Birth Defects Prevention Study between 1997 and 2002. The findings include live births, stillbirths, as well as terminations.

The workplace of all study participants was assessed by trained industrial hygienists for exposure to organic solvents. Workplace exposure to organic solvents was tracked for a period of four months, beginning one month prior to conception and continuing to the end of the first trimester.

Authors of the study examined the relationship between 15 different types of heart defect categories and the mother’s workplace exposure to organic solvents.

Researchers used both an expert consensus-based as well as a published evidenced based approach to determine the level of workplace exposure to organic solvents.

The results were slightly different depending on which evaluation method was employed:

Expert-consensus based findings
It was found that 4 percent of exposed mothers delivered healthy babies, 5 percent delivered babies with heart defects were exposed.

Published-evidenced based findings

It was found that 8 percent of exposed mothers delivered healthy babies, 10 percent of mothers who delivered babies with heart defects were exposed to organic solvents.

Study authors believe that the findings indicate a relationship between exposure to organic solvents and congenital heart defects. This is not a definitive study and more research is needed.

Women who are trying to conceive should talk to their physician prior to conception to determine whether or not workplace exposure to organic solvents is a concern and if extra precautions should be taken.

For your reference:

Common names for organic solvents include:
Tetrachloroethylene (dry cleaning)
Toluene and turpentine (paint thinners)
Acetone, methyl acetate, and ethyl acetate (nail polish removers/glue solvents)
Hexane, petrol ether (spot removers)
Citrus terpenes (detergents
Ethanol (perfume)


BMJ-British Medical Journal (2012, July 17). Workplace exposure to organic solvents linked to heart defects at birth. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 22, 2012, from

What are organic solvents? European Agency for Health and Safety at Work. 2012.

Suzanne M Gilboa, Tania a Desrosiers, Christina Lawson, Philip J Lupo, Tiffany J Riehle-Colarusso, Patricia a Stewart, Edwin Van Wijngaarden, Martha a Waters, Adolfo Correa, National Birth Defects Prevention Study. Association between maternal occupational exposure to organic solvents and congenital heart defects, National Birth Defects Prevention Study, 1997–2002. Occup Environ Med, 2012 DOI: 10.1136/oemed-2011-100536, from

Reviewed July 23, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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EmpowHER Guest

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October 23, 2014 - 12:46pm
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