Organic solvents (e.g. toluene, white spirits) and products containing solvents are used in many workplaces. They can enter the body through the lungs, the skin or by being swallowed.

Common effects are:

  • headaches
  • weakness
  • forgetfulness
  • irritability and mood changes
  • nausea
  • damage to the skin and eyes
  • giddiness
  • abnormal tiredness
  • drowsiness
  • balance disturbance

Different people react differently to solvents. Not all solvents have the same effects.

These effects may disappear once you stop work with solvents, but long-term or high exposure increases the risk of permanent damage.

Long-term exposure can damage the nervous system resulting in:

  • lack of concentration
  • memory loss
  • blunting of mental skills
  • depression.


Solvent contact with skin often causes drying, cracking, reddening and soreness. It increases the absorption of solvents and encourages skin infection. Dermatitis caused by solvent use may last a long time, even when you stop using solvents.


Many solvent vapours irritate the lining of the respiratory tract, affecting the nose, throat and lungs. In certain conditions, some solvents may cause an asthma-like attack.


Solvent vapours or liquids may cause eye irritation. This is usually reversible and permanent damage is rare. Solvent splashes to the eyes are dangerous and must be treated immediately.

Reducing solvent exposure

Employers must provide adequate ventilation. Exposure to solvents can also be reduced in other ways, e.g. by:

  • using other products in place of solvents
  • using a less volatile solvent (one that evaporates more slowly)
  • using a less toxic solvent
  • reducing the quantity of solvent used
  • keeping containers sealed
  • cleaning up spills immediately
  • placing solvent-contaminated rags in a sealed bin.

Protective equipment:

If exposure to solvents cannot be avoided you must use personal protective equipment. If working in an area where mechanical ventilation is not practicable, wear a correctly fitted and selected respirator.

Leave a Comment