Organic Solvents

At a Glance

Organic solvents are chemicals used in industries such as printing and manufacturing and found in consumer goods such as cleaning products and personal care products. Exposure to these solvents may increase the risk of developing breast cancer.

What are organic solvents?

Common organic solvents including styrene, methylene chloride, and formaldehyde are liquids used to dissolve other substances.[1] They can disrupt hormone levels and cause cell damage.[2],[3] Some organic solvents easily accumulate within the fat tissue of the breast.[4],[5],[6]

Where are organic solvents found?

Organic solvents are primarily used in industrial processes including the manufacture of computer components, fabricated metal, lumber, furniture, chemicals, textiles and clothing, as well as in printing.[7] They may also be used in cosmetology, aircraft maintenance, and firefighting.[8],[9],[10],[11] Organic solvents may be found in personal care products, cleaning products, and groundwater near industrial waste disposal sites.[12],[13]

What evidence links organic solvents to breast cancer?

Organic solvents disrupt the body’s natural hormonal system.[14] They can also cause cell damage, which may lead to an increase in cancer cells. The breast tissue is especially vulnerable to these effects during times of breast development, such as during prenatal development, puberty and pregnancy.[15]

  • Women exposed to high levels of carbon tetrachloride had a higher risk for breast cancer compared to women exposed to low levels.[16]
  • Occupational exposure to the organic solvents styrene, carbon tetrachloride and formaldehyde resulted in an increased risk of developing breast cancer.[17]
  • The organic solvent formaldehyde led to DNA damage in exposed mice.[18] Formaldehyde also promotes tumor formation and growth.[19]
  • Young rats that had not undergone puberty were exposed to a mixture of organic solvents. The rats exposed to the highest concentration of solvents subsequently developed mammary tumors.[20]

Who is most likely to be exposed to organic solvents?

Employees working in industries using organic solvents are most likely to be exposed.[21],[22],[23],[24]

Who is most vulnerable to the health effects?

Age is a factor. Women who have not given birth, children who have not yet undergone puberty, and breast-fed infants whose mothers have been exposed are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of organic solvents.[25],[26],[27],[28]

What are the top tips to avoid exposure?

The health effects of organic solvents depend on the amount of exposure; high exposure is associated with worse health outcomes. [29]

  • Protective equipment such as gloves, goggles, a respirator and well-fitting protective clothing can help limit exposure.[30]
  • Avoid industrial waste sites.[31]
  • Avoid cleaning and personal care products labeled as containing fragrance, one of the most common ingredients that can contain solvents.[32]
  • Research and talk with your employer about possible hazards and ways that exposure can be limited.[33]

[1] “Organic Solvents” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013. Web. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/organsolv/. Retrieved June 27, 2016.

[2] Ekenga, C. C., Parks, C. G., D’Aloisio, A. A., DeRoo, L. A., & Sandler, D. P. (2014). Breast cancer risk after occupational solvent exposure: the influence of timing and setting. Cancer Research74(11), 3076–3083.

[3] Labreche, FP, Goldberg, MS (1997). Exposure to organic solvents and breast cancer in women: A hypothesis. Am J Ind Med, 32:1-14.

[4] Wolff, M. (1983). Occupationally derived chemicals in breast milk. Am J Ind Med, 4, 259–281.

[5] Carbon Tetrachloride. (2004). https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/5943. Retrieved July 11, 2016.

[6] National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem. Styrene. (2004). https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/styrene#section=Top. Retrieved July 11, 2016.

[7] Hansen, J. (1999). Breast cancer risk among relatively young women employed in solvent-using industries. Am J Ind Med, 36, 43–47.

[8]Spirtas, R., Stewart, P. A., Lee, J. S., Marano, D. E., Forbes, C. D., Grauman, D. J., … Cohen, J. L. (1991). Retrospective cohort mortality study of workers at an aircraft maintenance facility. I. Epidemiological results. British Journal of Industrial Medicine, 48(8), 515–530.

[9] Stewart, P. A., Lee, J. S., Marano, D. E., Spirtas, R., Forbes, C. D., & Blair, A. (1991). Retrospective cohort mortality study of workers at an aircraft maintenance facility. II. Exposures and their assessment. British Journal of Industrial Medicine, 48(8), 531–537.

[10] LeMasters, G. K., Genaidy, A. M., Succop, P., Deddens, J., Sobeih, T., Barriera-Viruet, H., … Lockey, J. (2006). Cancer risk among firefighters: A review and meta-analysis of 32 studies. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 48(11), 1189–1202. doi:10.1097/01.jom.0000246229.68697.90

[11] Van Tongeren, M., Jimenez, A. S., Hutchings, S. J., MacCalman, L., Rushton, L., & Cherrie, J. W. (2012). Occupational cancer in Britain. British journal of cancer, 107, S18-S26

[12] Cleaning Supplies and Your Health. (n.d.). Retrieved August 31, 2016, from http://www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners/content/cleaners_and_health

[13] “Toxic Substances Portal – Trichloroethylene (TCE).” Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015. Web. Retrieved June 29, 2016.

[14] Ekenga, C. C., Parks, C. G., D’Aloisio, A. A., DeRoo, L. A., & Sandler, D. P. (2014). Breast cancer risk after occupational solvent exposure: the influence of timing and setting. Cancer Research74(11), 3076–3083.

[15] Kráľová, K. & Jampílek, J. (2015). Impact of environmental contaminants on breast cancer. Ecological Chemistry and Engineering, 2(1): 9-44.

[16] Garcia, E., Hurley, S., Nelson, D. O., Hertz, A., & Reynolds, P. (2015). Hazardous air pollutants and breast cancer risk in California teachers: a cohort study. Environmental Health14, 14. http://doi.org/10.1186/1476-069X-14-14

[17] Cantor, K., Stewart, P., Brinton, L., & Dosemeci, M. (1995). Occupational exposures and female breast cancer mortality in the United States. J Occup Environ Med, 37, 336–348.

[18] Speit, G., & Merk, O. (2002). Evaluation of mutagenic effects of formaldehyde in vitro: Detection of crosslinks and mutations in mouse lymphoma cells. Mutagenesis, 17(3), 183-187.

[19] Yoshida, I., & Ibuki, Y. (2014). Formaldehyde-induced histone H3 phosphorylation via JNK and the expression of proto-oncogenes. Mutation Research/Fundamental and Molecular Mechanisms of Mutagenesis, 770, 9-18. See more at: www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/formaldehyde/#_edn20

[20] Wang, F., Kuo, M., Shun, C., Ma, Y., Wang, J., & Ueng, T. (2002). Chronic toxicity of a mixture of chlorinated alkanes and alkenes in ICR mice. J Toxicol Environ Health, 65, 279–291.

[21] Friesen MC, Zahm SH, Ward MH, Silverman DT. Occupational cancer. Women & Health. Elsevier. 2013:629-45.

[22] 3 Peplonska, B., Stewart, P., Szeszenia-Dabrowska, N., Rusiecki, J., Garcia-Closas, M., Lissowska, J., … Blair, A. (2007). Occupation and breast cancer risk in Polish women: A population-based case-control study. Am J Ind Med, 50, 97–111.

[23] DeMatteo, R., Keith, M. M., Brophy, J. T., Wordsworth, A., Watterson, A. E., Beck, M., … Scott, D. N. (2012). Chemical exposures of women workers in the plastics industry with particular reference to breast cancer and reproductive hazards. New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy: NS, 22(4), 427–448.

[24] Delzell, E., Beall, C., & Macaluso, M. (1994). Cancer mortality among women employed in motor vehicle manufacturing. Journal of Occupational Medicine, 36(11), 1251–1259

[25] “Organic Solvent Neurotoxicity” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014. Web. Retrieved June 27, 2016. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/87-104/

[26] Ekenga, C. C., Parks, C. G., D’Aloisio, A. A., DeRoo, L. A., & Sandler, D. P. (2014). Breast cancer risk after occupational solvent exposure: the influence of timing and setting. Cancer Research74(11), 3076–3083.

[27] Ekenga CC, Parks CG, Sandler DP. Chemical exposures in the workplace and breast cancer risk: A prospective cohort study. International Journal of Cancer. 2015 Oct 1;137(7):1765-74.

[28] Ekenga, C. C., Parks, C. G., D’Aloisio, A. A., DeRoo, L. A., & Sandler, D. P. (2014). Breast Cancer Risk after Occupational Solvent Exposure: the Influence of Timing and Setting. Cancer Research, 74(11), 3076–3083. doi:10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-13-2430

[29] Wang, F., Kuo, M., Shun, C., Ma, Y., Wang, J., & Ueng, T. (2002). Chronic toxicity of a mixture of chlorinated alkanes and alkenes in ICR mice. J Toxicol Environ Health, 65, 279–291.

[30] “Organic Solvent Neurotoxicity” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014. Web. 27 June 2016. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/87-104/. Retrieved June 27, 2016.

[31] Toxic Substances Portal: Trichloroethylene (TCE). (2015). Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. Retrieved June 29, 2016.

[32] Cleaning Supplies and Your Health. (n.d.). Environmental Working Group. Web. www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners/content/cleaners_and_health. Retrieved August 31, 2016.

[33] Putting Breast Cancer Out of Work: Training Materials. Chemical Hazard and Alternatives Toolbox. www.chemhat. org/putting-breast-cancer-out-work-training-materials.

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