Maintenance engineers and mechanics world-wide are at an unusually high risk of nerve damage from n-Hexane based cleaners and degreasers. n-Hexane is a solvent that damages nerves. Long term exposure to the chemical can lead to permanent numbness, tingling, weakness and reduced sensitivity. The effects of n-Hexane are most acute in peripheral areas such as feet, hands, legs and arms.
Even with the use of PPE, cases of n-Hexane nerve damage are not uncommon and maintenance departments should consider removing products containing this solvent from their inventories.
What Products Contain n-Hexane?
n-Hexane is most commonly found in aerosol cleaning solvents such as brake cleaner. It is also found in other maintenance workshop chemicals such as parts washer fluid and general solvent degreasers. Most caution should be given to brake cleaners, however, as this product most commonly contains n-Hexane.
n-Hexane can enter the body through the skin, by ingestion or inhalation. Inhalation is the greatest risk those working in maintenance workshops.
The chemical evaporates quickly and, combined with the aerosolising effect of spray application (such as spray brake cleaners), large amounts of the solvent generally become airborne and, thus, easily inhaled. n-Hexane also has a very faint odour meaning that is it difficult to detect.
The risk of nerve damage from n-Hexane increases with time and level of exposure. The 8 hour time weighted average exposure limit for n-Hexane is 20ppm (source: Worksafe Australia)
The Health Effects of n-Hexane Exposure
Repeated exposure to n-Hexane causes peripheral neuropathy. Peripheral neuropathy is damage to nerves at the body’s extremities such as feet, hands, arms and legs. The ability of the body to reverse this damage is not well documented and, in some cases, permanent nerve damage has been caused by n-Hexane. At best, recovery from n-Hexane nerve damage can take months or years.
Short-term Exposure: Short term over exposure to a high level of n-Hexane usually causes temporary headaches, dizziness and loss of appetite, which abate once exposure has ceased. Whilst these symptoms may disappear, short-term exposure at this level is likely to also cause more permanent peripheral nerve damage as well.
Long Term Exposure: Long-term exposure to n-Hexane at lower concentrations may not cause any immediate acute side effects that are noticeable by the victim. Chronic exposure causes a gradual degradation of sensorimotor function, which is usually first noticed as a slight tingling or numbness in the toes and fingers. With continued exposure this can lead to more serious and long-term muscle weakness and loss of sensation.
Reducing & Eliminating n-Hexane Risk in Maintenance Workshops
With new developments in solvent technology n-Hexane is now an unnecessary risk for maintenance departments. Better performing and safer brake cleaning and workshop solvents are now readily available.
Eliminating n-Hexane from workplaces should be a high priority for every employer as exposure to the solvent is extremely difficult to control. Even with PPE, the high vapour pressure and low odour of n-Hexane mean that chronic exposure through inhalation is almost guaranteed when using the solvent.
Whilst some respirators are effective against n-Hexane, mandating their use effectively can be difficult. These respirators also have no failure indicators and will not alert a worker when the filter has become saturated.
Related article: Some brake cleaners contain tetrachloroethylene which is highly dangerous – particularly in the presence of heat (such as welding). Read More.
Purasolve Brake Cleaner
Purasolve Brake Cleaner is an ultra-safe, hexane free, residue free cleaning solvent for brakes and other technical applications developed to replace highly toxic & explosive brake cleaners.
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