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The Effects of Organic Solvent Neurotoxicity

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) define organic solvents as “carbon-based solvents...that are capable of dissolving or dispersing one or more substances.” Organic solvents can be divided into different categorizations, like carcinogens, reproductive hazards and neurotoxins. Neurotoxins, like toluene, tetrachloroethylene and n-hexane, can damage the brain, resulting in the condition organic solvent neurotoxicity (abbreviated as OSN).

Organic solvent neurotoxicity can be caused by improper protection at work, such as not using a mask when using a solvent, or from abuse. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2007 notes a rise in inhalant use among females between the ages of 12 and 17. For example, between 2002 and 2005, 34.9 percent of females in that age group answered that they had used toluene, glue or shoe polish to get high, compared to 25.8 percent of males in the same group.

The acute organic solvent neurotoxicity make the person feel ill, with symptoms include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, confusion, light-headedness and severe headaches. Dermatitis can also occur; symptoms of dermatitis include itching, skin lesions, redness and swelling. Jenni A. Ogden, PhD, author of the book Fractured Minds: A Case-Study Approach to Clinical Neuropsychology, notes “people who suffer from acute symptoms do not necessarily develop the chronic syndrome of OSN, possibly because they are so debilitated by the acute symptoms that they stop working with solvents before irreversible neurological damage results.”

Exposure to organic solvents can also result in peripheral neuropathy, as studied by Kutlu et al. in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience article “Peripheral neuropathy and visual evoked potential changes in workers exposed to n-hexane.” Damage to these nerves, which are outside the brain and spinal cord, affects sensation, movement and internal organs. When the subjects had not been exposed to the n-hexane for nine to 12 months, researchers found that 83.3 percent of them had recovered.

As the time of exposure to the organic solvent increases, so does the damage to the brain. Ogden states that mild symptoms can start after three years of exposure, but 10 or more years result in the chronic, debilitating symptoms. A patient can have depression, memory loss, anxiety, poor concentration, dizziness, sleep problems, fatigue and irritability. Physical symptoms, like headaches, poor appetite, heart palpitations, excessive perspiring and painful tingling, can occur. Ogden adds that hallucinations, emotional lability and suicidal ideation are also possible. The patient also has alcohol intolerance; alcohol is also a solvent and can worsen symptoms. Severe organic solvent neurotoxicity also affects the patient's personal relationships and her work productivity and capacity.
Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch received her bachelor’s of science degree in neuroscience from Trinity College in Hartford, CT in May 2009. She is the Hartford Women's Health Examiner and she writes about abuse on Suite 101.

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