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Solvents, Ethanol, Car Crashes & Tolerance

How risky is inhalation of organic solvents?

Philip J. Bushnell

2013-07BushnellF1.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageDarel woke from his dream of swordplay with iridescent lizards to a cold sense of hardness and thirst. The familiar headache and tingling in his ears blended with the hazy brown blankness of sunlight on the paper bag covering his face. He inhaled deeply the remaining petrol and tried to return to the dream, but it was over. An urgent, annoying hunger roused him; he pushed away the bag, sat up slowly and waited for the spinning walls to shudder to a halt around him. He tried to steady his shaking hands and swore as he reached for and missed his shoe that had somehow become lodged under his hip. Where was his hat? He pulled his feet under him and reached for a chair. The shaking increased. He tried to hold the chair and pull himself up, but could not keep his hands still. Falling back to the floor, he waited for his body to quiet. His brother appeared above him. “Again?” he said. “I’m taking you to the doc.”

Lars approached the traffic circle between home and the paint shop where he had worked all his adult life. The holidays were approaching, and the brilliantly lit Christmas tree and crèche in the circle made him smile. So beautiful! He watched the lights fly by as he circled around, admiring the workmanship of the display. Looking up, he moved toward the exit. Wait. Is it this one? Or that one? Where am I going? To work, or home? The confusion made him continue in the roundabout. He looked at his lunch box on the seat beside him. Opening it, he saw the sandwich and apple that his wife had packed. Ah! Morning! To work.

Marcie pulled up to the Kwik-Stop in her new hybrid. She had just emptied her first tank of gas, and was excited to see how many gallons it had taken to go those 435 miles on the odometer. Adele fingered her pacifier and watched from her car seat as Marcie switched off the ignition and hunted for the gas cap release. There! She pulled it, got out and swiped her credit card in the gas pump. Adele began to fidget, so Marcie quickly pulled the nozzle from the pump and fumbled with the gas cap. In the process, she accidentally squeezed the pump handle and a little gasoline splashed on the car and her shoe. She loosened her grip on the handle, stopping the gas, pushed the spigot into the fuel tank and filled it. Adele was now whimpering, so Marcie got in the back seat beside her and soothed her. She noted the cloying smell of gas as she quieted Adele, who then napped as Marcie drove them home.

These three vignettes provide glimpses of known and potential hazards of volatile organic compounds, commonly known as organic solvents. Darel’s story is one of the teenage petrol-sniffer who inhales very high concentrations of gasoline. Repeated high-concentration exposure to these compounds can lead to motor and cognitive debilitation associated with loss of white matter in the central nervous system (CNS). Lars’s tale is an apocryphal recounting of the consequences of long-term occupational exposure to solvent vapors, which are found in oil-based paints and adhesives. Exposure to these vapors has been associated (particularly in Scandinavia) with cognitive deficits including loss of short-term memory. These two stories indicate that high-level exposure to hydrocarbon vapors can have serious debilitating consequences, a conclusion widely held in the field. But what about Marcie’s acute encounter with spilled gasoline? Should she worry about this isolated episode of exposure? Will it hurt her or her little girl?

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