Environmental & health & safety impacts - Solvent use in industry

Environmental & health & safety impacts - Solvent use in industry

The environment is a topical issue and businesses must recognise and manage the impacts they make.

Solvents are organic liquids that evaporate easily at normal temperature and pressure, giving rise to volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions.

Organic compounds used as solvents include:

  • Aromatic compounds, such as benzene and toluene 
  • Alcohols, such as methanol 
  • Esters and ethers 
  • Ketenes, such as acetone 
  • Amines 
  • Nitrated and halogenated hydrocarbons.

Organic solvents are widely used in industry for cleaning and degreasing, thinning and dissolving. There are many problems relating to the use of organic solvents/VOCs, some of the main ones:

  • Aare classified as toxic, irritants or carcinogenic and can be the primary or contributory cause to many health issues such as irritation and damage to eyes, lungs and skin; headaches; nausea, dizziness and light-headedness. When a person is affected by solvents/VOCs there is an increased risk of having an accident; 
  • Are dangerous substances and if they are spilled or leak are likely to cause damage to people and property, and can also cause significant air, land and water pollution. One litre of solvent can contaminate 100 million litres of drinking water (SEPA); 
  • Contribute to the formation of low level ozone, which causes respiratory diseases, damage to crops and plant life;
    • Result in high disposal costs as hazardous waste; 
  • Are highly flammable and require special handling and storage to avoid combustion.

A recent international study (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-15639440) has linked the use of Trichloroethylene (TCE) in the workplace to an increased risk (6x) of developing Parkinson’s disease. TCE was reclassified as a ‘category 2’ carcinogen in Europe in 2001 and although many uses of TCE have been banned around the world it is still widely used as a degreasing agent for metal parts in industry.

From an insurance point of view the use of organic solvents considerably increases the property (1st & 3rd party) and liability (environmental, employer’s & public) risks.

Organisations that use organic solvents may require an environmental permit (England and Wales) or pollution prevention and control (PPC) permit (Northern Ireland & Scotland). They will have to strictly comply with its conditions, which will include a requirement that solvent emissions are controlled and reduced. Non compliance with an environmental permit or PPC can result in the withdrawal of the permit, a prohibition notice being issued and/or prosecution or imprisonment.

Bio based products have been developed to provide industry a highly effective yet safe and environmentally sound alternative to the use of organic solvents. These products offer the following benefits. They are: 

  • Manufactured using natural, sustainable ingredients 
  • pH neutral 
  • Non-toxic 
  • Non-hazardous 
  • Non-caustic 
  • Non-corrosive 
  • High flashpoint
  • Biodegradable 
  • VOC free 
  • Safe to the environment

They can be used as alternatives in most cleaning and degreasing applications and replace the need to use conventional organic solvents such as: 

  • MEK 
  • NMP 
  • Mineral spirits 
  • Trichloroethylene 
  • Acetone 
  • Benzene 
  • Toluene 
  • Paint thinner 
  • Lacquer thinner 
  • Alcohols 
  • Turpentine

A major UK company has recently trialed these products to resolve a number of serious issues involving the use of solvents. The company in question was using conventional organic solvents in their paint gun washing machines, but had serious health & safety concerns regarding their use and in addition was breaching solvent emission limits and as a result under threat of a prohibition notice being issued by the local authority.

A four week trial was carried out using two identical paint gun washing machines, one continued to use organic solvent and the other a bio based alternative. At the end of the trial it was found that in addition to the new product being highly effective at cleaning the paint gun:

  • 12 litres of the bio based alternative was used compared to 400 litres of solvent; 
  • The cost of the alternative product was less than the solvent 
  • The hazardous waste disposal costs were considerably lower when using the bio based alternative

In addition, since replacing conventional solvents on this one part of their operation solvent emission levels have reduced from ‘critical’ to ‘medium’ and the company in question expect this to reduce further to ‘low’ once the products are in use throughout their facilities.

Further information on bio based solvent replacements and environmental impact assessments can be obtained from Judy Hadden, Cardinus Environmental on 0207 469 0200.