You all asked for it! It started with what should have been a simple note. It was from a reader who wondered what impact the various chemicals in the shop had on a tech’s personal health. Having just completed an overview for a local newsletter regarding the value of organic vegetables and the impact of food chemicals one would think I would have been warned. But not me.

The objective of the next few minutes is to bring to the attention of you and your techs the possible impact of the many chemicals used every day in your shop and ways to avoid issues. I will start with a warning. I am no scientist or medical person. The impact of anything we discuss will be that as developed through a variety of sources thought to be reliable. Whether any of these chemicals causes issues is always the subject of great debate by many better educated than me.

There are a couple of forms of chemical transmission prevalent in our shops. The first is inhalation having to do with fumes, aerosols and the like. And never forget inhalation may happen from bay to bay. An example is one tech using brake cleaner spray and the tech next to them inhaling the fumes and overspray.

The second form of transmission that is hugely important but seldom considered is known as dermal absorption. I’ll let the CDC explain:

“Dermal absorption is the transport of a chemical from the outer surface of the skin both into the skin and into the body. Studies show that absorption of chemicals through the skin can occur without being noticed by the worker, and in some cases, may represent the most significant exposure pathway. Many commonly used chemicals in the workplace could potentially result in systemic toxicity if they penetrate through the skin (i.e. pesticides, organic solvents). These chemicals enter the blood stream and cause health problems away from the site of entry.” Source: CDC

The CDC goes on to state:

“Causes of OSD (occupational skin diseases) include chemical agents, mechanical trauma, physical agents and biological agents. Chemical agents are the main cause of occupational skin diseases and disorders. These agents are divided into two types: primary irritants and sensitizers. Primary or direct irritants act directly on the skin though chemical reactions. Sensitizers may not cause immediate skin reactions, but repeated exposure can result in allergic reactions.

A worker’s skin may be exposed to hazardous chemicals through: direct contact with contaminated surfaces, deposition of aerosols, immersion, or splashes.”

Source: CDC, edited for space

Summing this up, if you get “stuff” on your skin, it will get into your body and blood stream through dermal absorption.

One very common sign of your body’s reaction to chemical exposure is something called contact dermatitis (CD). According to Mayo Clinic:

“Contact dermatitis is a red, itchy rash caused by direct contact with a substance or an allergic reaction to it. The rash isn’t contagious or life-threatening, but it can be very uncomfortable.” Source: Mayo Clinic

Mayo goes on to list the likely results of CD: Signs and symptoms of contact dermatitis include:

• A red rash

• Itching, which may be severe

• Dry, cracked, scaly skin

• Bumps and blisters, sometimes with oozing and crusting

• Swelling, burning or tenderness

Once, many, many moons ago, yours truly was cleaning a head casting in a part’s cleaning tank when I managed to splash a bunch of cleaning liquid down the front of my pants. Thinking nothing of it, I went on with my work. By evening I had a red-hot rash down the front of me that was both painful and itchy, and ended up in places not to be discussed. I was a believer in a shop apron from that day forward!

“Everything is funny as long as it is happening to somebody else.” Will Rogers

So, we have established that there are opportunities for your body to absorb a wide variety of chemicals, and that there may be some nasty results.

Now we’ll take a look at sample health statements and impacts as provided by manufacturers to the CDC and other agencies called Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). The manufacturer will not be identified since there are many that have similar statements within a similar category.

For this overview, we’ll stick with general product categories. As you read, please remember I am no expert. How each person reacts to anything varies from one to another: medical conditions, personal habits such as smoking or drinking, other environmental issues, medications being taken and many more factors. What may really impact one person may make little difference in the life of another.

Motor oils: Made of petroleum distillates, additives. Per government agencies not considered a carcinogenic. Suggestions may be a skin irritant, lung irritant if misted and inhaled.

Transmission Fluid: Petroleum based lube oils and additives. Otherwise, similar to motor oil in health related issues.

Coolant: Typically glycol with additives. Per a variety of MSDS reports, with contact may cause damage to unborn babies, and reproductive issues with long-term exposure. Also an eye and lung irritant.

Fuels: Some variation between gasoline and diesel, but essentially similar. Based on petroleum distillates with additives. Extremely flammable. According to agencies it is a carcinogenic, may cause genetic defects, damage to organs with long term, repeated exposure. Irritating to respiratory system, eyes.

Other chemicals & cleaners, especially brake cleaner: One of the more active chemicals, is typically acetone, toluene and more additives. Long term, repeated exposure may damage organs, headache, nausea, skin irritation, eye irritation, respiratory irritation. In addition, exposure to fumes may have narcotic effects. Extremely flammable.

Summarizing, most of what we work with is some form of petroleum distillate or alcohol along with numerous additives. Depending on the base chemical and additives, effects may be:

• Skin, respiratory, eye irritation. (Here’s your contact dermatitis)

• Most have some level of flammability

• Some if exposure is both long term and/or frequent may cause damage to organs, reproductive systems, unborn babies and more

• Some may be carcinogenic

It is important that every tech reviews the MSDS sheets and that a binder or other form of access be readily available to all employees. This is also a regulation.

While no MSDS that I reviewed addressed immune system issues, I did some research there as well. To someone like myself who has a rare, terminal immune disease this was of interest for obvious reasons. Immune-system-related disease can be things like allergies, MS, skin diseases, joint diseases and more. The common thread is that while many have a chemical reaction that is understood at some level, virtually all remain without a cure short of medications directed to ease symptoms. Some of these target the immune system to partially shut it down. This results in issues as well, especially a lowered immune system and greater likelihood of getting sick.
“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Niels Bohr

We’ll charge right to the question and answer.

Question: Could chemicals in our shop cause immune issues?

Answer: Based on hours of reading and interviews, I offer the following definitive answer – MAYBE

Depending on who you read and the reports published read, there seems to be a growing feeling that immune system issues are caused by:

• Genetics

• Toxins & chemicals

• Diet

• Lifestyle decisions regarding things ingested, smoking, etc.

• Triggered by an unrelated illness that causes the immune system to activate

• Others

So the answer is that environmental toxins (such as chemicals in the shop) seem to be implicated in possibly causing immune-system issues and possibly some/any of the related diseases. But, it seems to me, in my humble opinion, there is much research yet remaining. So MAYBE the chemicals cause immune disruptions, maybe some other factor or combination of factors. And as noted earlier, how each of our bodies reacts to chemicals varies greatly. Just because one person seems to feel a chemical caused an immune system disease does not in any way mean that another’s disease has the same cause. Best to leave that to the doctors and scientists.

“In God we trust. All others must bring data.” – W. Edwards Deming

Incidentally, I did teach college statistics once upon a time. So I cannot overstate the importance of not accepting one person’s story, or a small group for that matter, and assume that the information represents fact. It doesn’t. One or two points of data do not a trend make. Unfortunately, there have been many urban myths, many useless or dangerous “natural drugs” and sham cures accepted through history on just such weak “research,” As a result, one person, or even a small group of people claiming that any or all chemicals we work with are damaging to us should be taken lightly. Do your research. Talk to your own medical team. Wait for researchers and research to bear out the facts before you jump to any conclusions.

However, while it seems some claims have been made on very weak evidence, should we ignore everything we learn? That may be equally foolhardy. Prevention in the face of little evidence would seem quite prudent. That is certainly the cases here.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” ? Benjamin Franklin

With all of this information, what are we to do? There are some very simple things we can do to avoid exposure and any possible issues due to chemicals. Here’s a very partial list:

• Provide wheel tents for brake cleaning

• Be sure all wear gloves appropriate for chemical exposure. Be sure to avoid latex since some may have allergic reactions, and a few not know that it’s an issue.

• Provide and require safety glasses with side shields.

• Provide training on safe handling of chemicals. Your worker comp insurance company, local consultants and various online programs may be able to help.

• Have each employee review the MSDS pages and keep them readily available

• Install an eye wash station

• If there is a chance of misted chemicals or regular noxious fumes, an appropriate respirator is needed

• Provide shop fresh air exchange

• Clean up chemical messes immediately and per the process provided in the MSDS

• Still more!

Sure shop owners can do their level best to enforce the use of safety gear, ultimately it is up to the individual tech and employee. That said, many will react positively to your efforts if they are made aware of the information included in the MSDS sheets, and other material as provided by outside sources. One shop actually brings in professionals such as respiratory therapists, environmental consultants and others to conduct lunch-and-learn for all in the shop.

Whatever you do, whatever investment you make, it will likely be minor compared to the improved morale and related increased productivity you will likely realize. Depending on how you feel after looking at the data available, it may also lower your worker comp costs, days lost and more.