Fatalities from Acute Solvent Exposures


By Angela Babin, M.S.

Although rare, fatalities from acute overexposures to some solvents do occur, especially in enclosed spaces, as shown in the examples below.

In February, 1989, two maintenance workers died after cleaning wax off a bathroom floor at the federal office building in Chicago.  The cleaning product contained 90% methylene chloride.  The men were wearing air-purifying respirators with organic vapor cartridges.

In July 1987, a 40-year-old school custodian collapsed on the job after being exposed to a floor-cleaning product that contained butyl cellosolve (ethylene glycol monobutyl ether or butoxy ethanol).  He had been using the product in a bathroom without any ventilation, and also without respiratory equipment, gloves, or eye protection.  Although the school claimed that his death 12 days later was caused by a stroke complicated by diabetes, the state Worker's Compensation Board ruled that the fatality was due to chemical exposure.

The May 5, 1989 edition of Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Review related the death of a 34-year-old foundry worker after acute exposure to 1,1,1-trichloroethane (methyl chloroform) in April 1986.  He had been spraying a chlorinated hydrocarbon solvent mixture in an open pit.  He was wearing an air-purifying respirator with an organic vapor cartridge.

In November 1985, a 24-year-old man lost consciousness while cleaning out a vat in a manufacturing firm with the solvent 1,1,1-trichloroethane.  He had been wearing a dust/mist/fume respirator, as well as rubber gloves and work boots.

Six fatal cases of 1,1,1-trichloroethane poisoning were studied from data from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.  These cases occurred before July 1969.  Five cases occurred when shipyard workers used the solvent while cleaning in enclosed spaces.  The sixth case died from exposure to the solvent from sleeping near rags soaked with trichloroethane.

The cases described above are all examples of fatalities from acute solvent exposures characterized by single, large exposures to the solvent vapors.  The concentration of a chemical necessary to provoke an acute fatality is usually much higher than levels found in normal, everday exposures.  However, the above fatalities almost all involved working in enclosed spaces (a bathroom is an enclosed space) where the concentration of solvent vapors was able to build up to a very high concentration.  In this type of enclosed situation, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends only positive-pressure air-supplied respirators.  Air-purifying respirators do not provide adequate protection in enclosed spaces, as shown by several of the above fatalities.

In the arts, those at risk include maintenance workers in museums, art schools, etc. who might be using cleaning solvents in bathrooms and other enclosed areas, building conservators using solvents in enclosed areas, and scenic painters who might be applying large quantities of solvent-containing lacquers or varnishes to decks.

In addition, people with heart problems could be at higher risk.   Most of the above fatalities involved heart failures.  If an individual's heart is already damaged, then they could be at risk at even lower concentrations than those that caused the above fatalities.  For this reason, people with heart problems should minimize any solvent exposures.


Art Hazard News, Volume 12, No. 5, 1989

This article was originally printed for Art Hazard News, © copyright Center for Safety in the Arts 1989. It appears on nontoxicprint courtesy of the Health in the Arts Program, University of Illinois at Chicago, who have curated a collection of these articles from their archive which are still relevant to artists today.