McDonald Hearing Services - Grand Rapids, MI

Organic paint and solvents that cause hearing loss.

Sometimes the dangers to your hearing are obvious: the roaring jet engine next to your ears or the screeching machines on the floor of a factory. When the dangers are intuitive and logical, it’s easy to convince people to take practical solutions (which usually include wearing earmuffs or earplugs). But what if there was an organic compound that was as harmful for your ears as too much noise? Just because something is organic doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you. But how is possible that your ears could be harmed by an organic substance?

You Might Not Want to Eat This Organic Compound

To clarify, these organic substances are not something you can get in the produce section of your grocery store and you wouldn’t want to. According to recent (and some not-so-recent) research published by European scholars, chemicals called organic solvents have a good chance of injuring your hearing even with very little exposure. To be certain, the kind of organic label you see on fruit in the supermarket is completely different. In fact, marketers use the positive connections we have with the word “organic” to sell us products with the implication it’s actually good for you (or at least not bad for you). The word organic, when associated with food means that the growers didn’t use particular chemicals. The word organic, when associated with solvents, is a chemistry term. Within the discipline of chemistry, the term organic represents any chemicals and compounds that have bonds between carbon atoms. Carbon atoms can generate all varieties of different molecules and, therefore, a large number of different convenient chemicals. But that doesn’t guarantee they aren’t potentially dangerous. Millions of workers each year handle organic solvents and they’re frequently exposed to the risks of hearing loss while doing so.

Where do You Come Across Organic Solvents?

Organic solvents are used in some of the following items:

  • Cleaning supplies
  • Glues and adhesives
  • Varnishes and paints
  • Degreasing chemicals

You get the idea. So, this is the question, will your hearing be harmed by painting or even cleaning?

Organic Solvents And The Hazards Related to Them

The more you’re exposed to these substances, based on current research, the higher the corresponding risks. So when you clean your home you will probably be fine. The biggest risk is experienced by people with the highest degree of contact, in other words, factory workers who produce or use organic solvents on a commercial scale. Ototoxicity (toxicity to the auditory system), has been shown to be associated with subjection to organic substances. This has been demonstrated both in lab experiments using animals and in experiential surveys with actual people. Subjection to the solvents can have a negative effect on the outer hair cells of the ear, leading to loss of hearing in the mid-frequency range. Regretfully, the ototoxicity of these compounds isn’t widely recognized by company owners. These dangers are even less recognized by workers. So those employees don’t have standardized protocols to protect them. One thing that may really help, for example, would be standardized hearing exams for all workers who handle organic compounds on a consistent basis. These hearing screenings would be able to detect the very earliest indications of hearing loss, and workers would be able to respond appropriately.

You Have to Work

Most recommendations for safeguarding your hearing from these specific organic substances include regulating your exposure coupled with routine hearing tests. But first, you need to be aware of the hazards before you can follow that advice. It’s easy when the risks are well known. No one doubts that loud noises can damage your hearing and so precautions to safeguard your hearing from the daily sound of the factory floor are obvious and logical. But when the danger is not visible as it is for the millions of Americans who work with organic solvents, solutions can be more difficult to sell. Thankfully, as specialists sound more alarm bells, employees and employers are moving to make their places of work a little bit less dangerous for everyone. For now, it’s a good strategy to only work with these products in a well-ventilated place and to wear masks. It would also be a practical plan to get your ears checked by a hearing care professional.