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Common Chemicals Create Risk for Hearing Loss

Everyone knows that using jackhammers and other loud construction equipment without noise protection can be harmful to your hearing. What we are also learning is that exposure to a number of solvents, varnishes and other products commonly found at construction sites can also damage your hearing.

A new informational bulletin developed by OSHA and NIOSH calls attention to the fact that many of these items contain ototoxic chemicals. In other words, they are poisonous to your hearing. Regardless of noise exposure, over time, the fumes, mists, gases and vapors from these substances can damage nerve fibers and hair cells in the inner ear, causing hearing loss, ringing in the ears (tinnitus) and problems with balance.

Chemicals commonly found in construction (and some household) products that can cause problems with hearing and balance include:

  • Benzene – plastics, paints, cleaning agents, cigarette smoke
  • Carbon disulfide – pesticides
  • Carbon monoxide – cigarette smoke, welding, gasoline-powered tools and vehicles
  • Styrene – plastics, insulating material
  • Trichloroethylene – paints, waxes, pesticides, lubricants, rug cleaners, spot remover
  • Toluene – paints, lacquers, adhesives, rubber, leather tanning, spray paint
  • Xylene – paints, varnishes, thinners

Ototoxic chemicals enter the body and bloodstream through:

  • Inhalation
  • Skin absorption
  • Ingestion

LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni

A Hazardous Mix

While it doesn’t have to be noisy for ototoxic hearing loss to occur, working around noise makes this hazard more likely to affect workers. That’s because the combination of chemical and noise exposures have a synergistic effect – the combined effect is greater than the effect of either individually.

“LIUNA members working in construction and other industries are already at increased risk for hearing loss due to noise on the job,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “This risk increases further when workers use ototoxic chemicals. It’s important for LIUNA signatory employers and members to recognize this silent and prevalent hazard to hearing and take steps to prevent it.”

Depending on the level of noise, the dose of the chemical and the length of exposure, ototoxic hearing loss can be temporary or permanent, and there is no treatment for it.

Symptoms of ototoxic exposure are similar to that of most solvents and neurotoxins. If you experience any of the following symptoms, seek fresh air:

  • Headache
  • Feeling of fullness in the ear
  • Dizziness
  • Blurry vision

Protecting Workers

Replacing products that contain ototoxic chemicals with less toxic substances can help protect worker hearing. Unfortunately, finding out which ones can cause hearing loss can be a challenge, as Safety Data Sheets (SDS) do not always address this hazard. However most chemicals that affect hearing also cause nerve and/or kidney damage. Key words to look for when reviewing a chemical’s SDS for the potential to cause hearing loss are “neurotoxicant” and “nephrotoxicant.”

If hazardous chemicals can’t be replaced, engineering controls that assist with ventilation can reduce risk. When possible, OSHA requires employers to install exhaust fans, jets, ducts, hoods and separators to draw fumes, mists, gases and vapors away from the work area. Personal protective equipment including gas/vapor respirators, goggles and gloves to reduce skin exposure can also help protect against ototoxic hearing loss. Employers should also institute a comprehensive hearing conservation program that includes controlling on-the-job noise, hearing protection, hearing tests and toolbox talks on noise and hearing loss.

The LHSFNA has developed a number of materials that can help keep workers safe from hazardous noise. These include the Laborers’ Guide to Noise and Hearing Loss pamphlet, Task-Based Hearing Loss Prevention manual and Solvents in Construction Health Alert. These and other health and safety materials can be ordered through the Fund’s online Publications Catalogue. The LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety & Health Division can also provide guidance by developing a site safety plan for your worksite. For more information, call 202-628-5465.

Medication Alert

There are more than 200 medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, that can cause hearing loss when taken for an extended period of time or in large doses. These include a number of antibiotics, diuretics, cancer drugs and aspirin. The risk increases when workers are exposed to noise while taking any of these medications.As with any medication, read the label before taking the first dose and let your health care professional know if you experience side effects. Your health care provider should also know if you work in a noisy environment, as it may be possible to adjust your medication or switch you to one that carries less risk.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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