Why are Petroleum-based Solvents Are Dangerous?

Short term exposure to solvents cause symptoms such as dizziness, headaches and nausea. More longer term effects involve blood diseases such as Acute Myelogenous Leukemia, Myelodysplastic Syndrome and an increased risk of birth defects. Some studies have linked solvents (not all) with birth defects, low birth weight and miscarriages.

Petroleum based solvents are flammable, thus creating storage problems. Because they have such an impact on health they also create incredible storage challenges as they can contaminate large amounts of water if they are accidentally released.

Types of Petroleum-based Solvents

  • Paint Thinners
  • Degreasers
  • Pesticides
  • Automotive Brake and Engine Cleaners

What is Benzene

Benzene is an aromatic hydrocarbon that is produced by the burning of natural products. It is a component of products derived from coal and petroleum and is found in gasoline and other fuels. Benzene is used in the manufacture of plastics, detergents, pesticides, and other chemicals. Research has shown benzene to be a carcinogen (cancer causing). With exposures from less than 5 years to more than 30 years, individuals have developed, and died from, leukemia. Long-term exposure may affect bone marrow and blood production. Short-term exposure to high levels of benzene can cause drowsiness, dizziness, unconsciousness, and death. The current permissible exposure level is 1 part per million (ppm) in air for an 8 hour average with a short-term exposure limit of 5 ppm. Benzene can also be absorbed through the skin.


What can I do to limit exposure?

  • Educate yourself on what solvents are in your workplace
  • Increase Ventilation in the area where the solvents are used
  • If you have to use solvents, then there is Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that can limit exposure
  • Avoid duties that have solvent exposure

Benzene and Petroleum Solvents

Petroleum solvents often have benzene as a component.  One of the most common questions that our clients and customers ask us is if Benzene causes cancer.  Whether you have been diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndromes or Acute Myeloid Leukemia, they are both scientifically connected.

Petroleum Solvent FAQs

What are petroleum-based solvents?

They are liquid; organic chemicals derived from petroleum in different ways. They are efficient, economical in many products and industries.

Why are they used?

The primary purpose of these solvents is to break down materials such as resins and plastics because they quickly evaporate.

Where can they commonly be found?

Paints (even water-based), photo processing, glues, adhesives, products that use aerosol sprays, varnishes, inks, degreasers, cleaners, product thinners, leathers, textile dyes, permanent pens and many other products.

What industries typically use them?

Painting, printing, automotive, gas & oil production, railroad occupations, and many industries that require manufacturing.

Can they cause cancer?

There are no solvents considered as ‘safe.' Since they evaporate, there are vapors inhaled and the fumes can be hazardous. Some are known to cause cancer, such as solvents that contain ‘chloro’ or ‘chloride’ in their names. Benzene falls into this category, causing leukemia and carbon tetrachloride can cause liver cancer.

How can you be exposed to petroleum solvents?

If you’ve had any long term use of any products mentioned above, you could be exposed to petroleum solvents. If you keep using them, the hazardous effects will continue to be a risk.

What effects do they have on the human body?

The effects are irritation on the lungs, eyes, skin, nervous system and internal organ damage such as kidneys and liver.

What are the symptoms of petroleum solvent poisoning?

Depending on the product and type, poisoning can be an acute skin irritation, chronic colds or bronchitis, nose bleeds, chemical pneumonia, eye damage, dizziness, headaches or other nervous system effects like memory loss or psychological problems and more.

Are there safer solvents used?

As mentioned above they aren’t safe, but there are smarter ways to use these products. Use the MSDS product sheets and compare:

  • Threshold Limit Values - choosing higher ones.
  • Rates of evaporation - finding low rates when you can.
  • Flashpoints - look for high flashpoints when possible.
  • Toxic effects listed - consider your current health when buying a product.
  • Chemical classes - other similar products in the same class can be used and may have less toxic effects, but be just as effective.

If used, how you can decrease exposure to adverse effects?

A common rule of thumb is to protect yourself with gloves, mask/respirator, goggles or eyewear and have proper ventilation. Use the solvent as quickly and efficiently as possible, to limit the exposure time.

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