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Solvents dissolve, suspend, or extract other materials without causing a chemical change to the material or the solvent.

Solvents are in numerous products ranging from carpets, paints to cleaning products, but solvents other than water can be dangerous and deadly, especially to workers exposed to them on a daily basis. The body absorbs solvents through breathing and through the skin.  The harmful effects are cumulative, which is why cancers do not appear until years or decades after exposure.Don’t believe for one moment that so called “water base” paints are safe.  They dry quickly because of solvents, like ethylene glycol, that rapidly evaporate. For 20 years ethylene glycols have been known by the State of California to cause reproductive harm.  The last thing a pregnant woman should do is paint the nursery for the new baby.

Solvent exposure can also injure the children of parents whose work brings them into regular contact with the substances. Jack Zhao is such a child. His mother worked in a dangerous environment during pregnancy, and Jack was born with severe handicaps.

Jack’s sad story is a study of one mother and her child. Larger studies have consistently shown that children who develop brain tumors are more likely to have parents who report spending significant time in jobs where they have been exposed to solvents and other chemicals.

Routine use of solvents containing benzene, ethylene, toluene, xylene is associated with leukemia and brain cancer. Our firm has represented the widows of 86 machinists at Pratt & Whitney, all dead from brain tumors. In their work, they were exposed to many solvents, and almost to a man they were diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM), a rare and deadly brain tumor.

Of all the dangerous solvents, benzene is the worst. It certainly has the longest record of causing cancer. As early as 1928, a strong link between workplace exposure to benzene and leukemia became clear, but tens of thousands of workers still labor in environments with high benzene levels.

Ethylene is another widely used solvent with strong links to increased cancer rates. A report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states “human occupational studies have shown elevated cases of leukemia, stomach and pancreatic cancer, and Hodgkin’s disease in workers exposed to ethylene oxide by inhalation.”

The list of dangerous solvents is long, and so is the list of occupations that expose workers to high levels of these chemicals. In California, every employer has a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace, so employers who continue to subject their workers to high levels of solvents are choosing to break the law.

One occupation not on that list is the military. Young men and women who sign up to be soldiers accept the dangers from bullets and bombs. They shouldn’t have to worry about personal injury and wrongful death from solvents and other chemicals, but many soldiers who never suffer a combat injury have come home disabled because of exposure to chemicals.

Prolonged exposure to solvents increases a person’s risk of developing cancer. Many studies have clearly proven that connection. Despite the widespread knowledge that everyone should avoid exposure to solvents, many employers still have not taken the necessary steps to protect their workers.

Anyone who questions if his or her disease was caused by chemical exposure at work should contact us.  There is no charge for our investigating to determine the most likely causes and letting you know what can be done about it.

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Richard Alexander