What to Know About Industrial Solvents Exposure in Veterans

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 08, 2022
4 min read

Industrial solvents are everywhere in the military. Whether you are degreasing machinery or stripping paint, you probably use a chemical that contains a solvent. 

Exposure to those chemicals, though, can be dangerous. The long-term effects can be detrimental to your health unless you know how to avoid them. 

An industrial solvent is a chemical that dissolves or removes other chemicals. The military uses industrial solvents to:

  • Clean
  • Degrease
  • Strip paint
  • Thin oil-based paint

Typical military tasks necessitate industrial solvents, so exposure to them can be a concern. 

Common products with solvents. Industrial solvents are typically liquid. You'll find them in common products like:

Organic vs. Inorganic solvents. Solvents are dangerous whether they're organic or inorganic. The main difference between organic and inorganic solvents is that organic solvents contain carbon.

You're typically exposed to solvents in four ways: 

  • Inhalation
  • Ocular (eye) contact
  • Skin contact
  • Ingestion

It's rare to ingest solvents, but some solvents can end up in your food or water following exposure to contaminated air or water supply.

You don't need to avoid all solvents or products that contain solvents. Knowing the commonly dangerous solvents, the products they're in, and the way they're dangerous can help soldiers avoid exposure.

What is benzene? This colorless liquid has a sweet smell. It evaporates quickly, dissolves in water, and is highly flammable. 

Sources of benzene. The most common exposure to benzene is through industrial processes. Benzene is used to make chemicals for plastic, nylon, and other synthetic fibers. Benzene is more directly used to make:

  • Rubbers
  • Lubricants
  • Dyes
  • Pesticides

Outside air typically contains lower levels of benzene, but soldiers are likely to be exposed to greater quantities.

Benzene and health. The effects of benzene depend on the level of exposure. 

  • Long-term exposure can cause anemia and damage your immune system.
  • High levels of acute exposure can lead to drowsiness, dizziness, tremors, increased heart rate, confusion, headaches, and fainting. 
  • Very high exposure can lead to death. 

What is acetone? It's a colorless liquid that evaporates easily, dissolves in water, and is flammable. It's commonly found in nail polish remover and gives it its signature smell. 

Sources of acetone. Environments with a lot of painting, plastic production, and cleaning have the highest levels of acetone exposure. Using acetone-based products in enclosed and poorly ventilated spaces is dangerous.

Acetone and health. Most research about the long-term effects of acetone exposure has been done on animals. Its effects on humans are unknown. 

  • Breathing or swallowing high levels of acetone can cause headaches, nausea, increased heart rate, confusion, fainting, and coma. 
  • Breathing moderate levels of acetone can irritate your eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. 
  • Acetone can dry, irritate, and crack your skin. 

What is tetrachloroethylene? This solvent is non-flammable and has a slight odor. Tetrachloroethylene is a colorless liquid that is also called:

  • Perchloroethylene
  • PCE
  • Perc
  • Tetrachloroethene
  • Perchlor

Sources of tetrachloroethylene. You can find tetrachloroethylene most often in dry cleaning agents. It can also be used as a metal degreaser.

Tetrachloroethylene breaks down slowly in the air, water, and soil. A part of tetrachloroethylene in the air takes about 200 days to break down, so it sticks around for a long time.

Tetrachloroethylene and health. Not much is known about the long-term effects of exposure to high levels of tetrachloroethylene.

  • Brief periods of exposure to high levels can cause dizziness, headaches, drowsiness, and loss of coordination.
  • Brief periods of very high exposure can cause fainting and death. 
  • Long periods of low-level exposure can cause mood swings, memory problems, changes in attention, slow reaction time, and changes in vision.   

What is trichloroethylene? This solvent is a sweet-smelling, colorless liquid. It's non-flammable, but it's volatile. 

Sources of trichloroethylene. This solvent is typically used as a degreaser and an ingredient for other chemicals. It can contaminate air, water, and soil. 

Trichloroethylene and health. Trichloroethylene is a known carcinogen according to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Trichloroethylene causes kidney cancer specifically, and it may cause liver cancer and malignant lymphoma.

  • Moderate exposure to trichloroethylene can cause headaches, dizziness, and drowsiness. 
  • Breathing or eating trichloroethylene can cause nerve damage in your face. 
  • Skin contact with trichloroethylene can cause a rash. 
  • Exposure to trichloroethylene can also cause scleroderma, a systemic autoimmune disease.
  • High levels of exposure can lead to arrhythmia, liver damage, kidney damage, coma, or death. 

What is xylene? Xylene is a colorless chemical. It smells sweet and is flammable. 

Source of xylene. Xylene is made from petroleum and used to make various products, including:

  • Cleaning chemicals
  • Paint thinners
  • Paints
  • Varnishes
  • Gasoline

Small amounts of xylene can end up in food or water. Most exposure happens following inhalation or skin contact.

Xylene and health. Low exposure to xylene isn't known to cause health problems. However:

  • Exposure to high levels of xylene can cause headaches, decreased coordination and balance, dizziness, and confusion.
  • It can cause difficulty breathing and irritate your eyes, nose, and throat. 
  • It can slow your reaction time, make it hard to remember, upset your stomach, and damage your liver or kidneys. 
  • Exposure to very high levels can cause fainting or death. 

The immediate symptoms of many solvents are similar. Inhalation can make your brain foggy, eye contact makes your eye burn, and skin contact can cause irritation. 

Exposure to extremely high levels can be deadly, but there are precautions many soldiers can take to prevent those levels of exposure. 

When working with industrial solvents, proper safety is vital to prevent complications later in life. The only way to avoid long-term complications is to practice safety and hygiene while serving. 

For veterans, the biggest concern is the long-term effects. Long-term exposure can cause irreparable damage to your health. 

Solvent poisoning treatment. In most scenarios, you need to treat the symptoms of solvent poisoning while reducing exposure to solvents. The symptoms will depend on the solvent, level of exposure, length of time exposed, and type of exposure.

Treating long-term problems caused by solvent poisoning will depend on the disease that's developed. 

Preventing solvent poisoning. The only way to avoid exposure to solvents is to practice workplace hygiene and safety.

  • Follow a product's safety warnings and directions.
  • Wear protective clothing and gear.
  • Work in a ventilated space. 
  • Wash hands and exposed areas after working with solvents.