10 June 2015

A new research study has concluded that women exposed to low levels of common organic solvents at work are 20% more likely to develop breast cancer.

The Australian study, published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, examined 1205 women who were on the Western Australian Cancer Registry and who had been diagnosed with primary breast cancer. This group was then matched to a control group of 1789 women from the electoral roll.

The researchers determined the women’s exposure to solvents through telephone interviews and found that about a third of the women were occupationally exposed to solvents.

The risk of breast cancer was 20% higher for women exposed to aliphatic solvents or to aromatic hydrocarbons other than benzene. The risks were lower for those exposed to benzene and chlorinated solvents.

The study suggests that there may be an association between occupational exposure to aliphatic and aromatic solvents and the risk of breast cancer at the low levels of exposure experienced by women in the study.

The authors said, “Our findings are consistent with previous reports of an elevated risk of breast cancer associated with occupations where exposure to solvents is likely.”

According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), solvents have various effects on human health, whether the exposure is by vapour, mist, or liquid form. Ill health effects are specific to each solvent but can include:

  • narcotic effects, causing fatigue and dizziness

  • irritation of the eyes and the respiratory tract

  • dermatitis and other skin disorders

  • damage to the liver, kidneys, heart, blood vessels, bone marrow and nervous system.