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Neurotoxic chemicals: understand the risks to keep workers safe and healthy

Many workers in the EU are exposed to neurotoxic chemicals capable of affecting the central nervous system, peripheral nerves and sensory organs. Strict monitoring and control of exposure is essential, together with preventive measures, to keep workers and workplaces safe and healthy.


Neurotoxic chemicals and the nervous system

The nervous system is a complex network of nerves and cells that carry messages to and from the brain and spinal cord to various parts of the body. Neurotoxic chemicals can facilitate, block or inhibit neurotransmission leading to a change in the chemistry or structure of the nervous system. The nervous system is particularly vulnerable to nerve gases, which explains why the most effective chemical weapons are neurotoxins like Tabun, Sarin and VX gas.

Neurotoxic substances include naturally occurring elements such as lead, mercury and manganese; biological compounds such as ethanol, also known as alcohol, which is produced in many businesses such as breweries and vineyards, botulinum toxin (Botox), tetanus toxin (found in food and health industries), tetrodotoxin (from the puffer fish, a Japanese delicacy) and domoic acid (from contaminated mussels); process-generated gases like carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide; and synthetic compounds including many pesticides, industrial solvents and monomers.

Neurotoxic effects

Exposure to neurotoxic chemicals can lead to low-level symptoms such as headaches, dizziness and vomiting; to more severe and irreversible biochemical/physiological/neurological and morphological changes. Neurotoxic substances have been found to be one of the major causes of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and diseases of the brain[1].

Exposure can also lead to changes in body and mind, known as Organic Psycho Syndrome. Symptoms range from very mild to severe and can occur instantly or gradually. These can include sleeping problems, personality changes and short-term memory loss.

Many industries use neurotoxic organic solvents in chemical or technical processes. They are usually fluids at room temperature and are easily evaporated. They are mainly taken up via the lungs, but some may penetrate the skin as well. Neurotoxic chemicals are also found in pesticides, posing a risk to agricultural workers, along with exterminators, road/railway workers and forestry workers.

Preventive measures

To keep workers safe from the effects of neurotoxic substances, employers should take preventive measures[2] that can significantly reduce risks to workers.

  • Assessing whether a neurotoxic substance is necessary in the workplace, or whether it can be replaced by a less harmful substance.
  • Evaluation of health and safety risks of all chemical compounds introduced into the workplace.
  • Engineering controls – e.g. ventilation systems, closed production facilities – to keep exposures below permissible exposure limits.
  • Administrative controls such as planning, training, employee rotation, changes in production processes, product substitution and strict adherence to all existing regulations.
  • Personal protection equipment (PPE) when engineering controls are unavailable to reduce workers’ contact with neurotoxicants.
  • Worker health surveillance, including regular medical examinations and role reassignment in case of any signs and symptoms of neurotoxicant intoxication.

Workers will often experience symptoms and effects after exposure has ceased or following very low-level exposures. Careful history of disease development and its relation to cumulative exposure is therefore essential.

Substituting carcinogenic and neurotoxic solvents used in tanning

A case study from a footwear company in Spain highlights the dangers to workers exposed to the wide range of hazardous chemicals used in manufacturing. In this case leather tanning, dyeing, finishing and sole manufacturing. Workers began reporting symptoms such as dizziness, vomiting and headaches. One female worker suffered an epileptic seizure after 10 hours of continuous work with solvents in a tanning process. She suffered several more seizures and had to take medication for several years, which prevented pregnancy.

In response the company followed all the preventive measures listed above, including rotating workers to reduce the maximum time spent on the tanning station to 2 hours and introduced a new reporting procedure in case of air extractor malfunctions.

The measures implemented improved working conditions, and the whole experience helped raise workers’ and community members’ awareness of the importance of avoiding risks to human health and the environment from toxic substances. The provision of training and information about prevention measures was key to the overall success of the intervention.

What action is being taken?

Many EU countries have introduced measures to reduce the use of solvents and other neurotoxic chemicals, including through the adoption of stricter occupational exposure levels. However, the risks from exposures are still considerable in many occupations and job roles. A recent EU-OSHA study, ‘A data-driven method for assessing exposure to dangerous substance in EU workplaces’ confirms that neurotoxic substances pose a significant risk to workers.

If you are worried about the dangerous substances found in your workplace, why not use EU-OSHA’s e-tool which provides tailored and easy-to-understand background and good practice information, for example on risks, labelling, legislation, prevention measures and much more. There are also plenty of practical tools and guidance materials available on the campaign website. Finally, don’t forget to follow the campaign on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter (#EUhealthyworkplaces).