Some science behind the scenes

Solvents

Solvents – such as nail polish remover, paint remover, paint thinner, correction fluid and industrial solvents – contain all sorts of different solvents - acetone, ethyl acetate, toluene, methylene chloride, and methanol for example. 

Although it may seem common sense – even intuitively obvious - to say that sniffing or huffing chemical household products such as paint strippers is dangerous and could cause you illness or death, it is in reality somewhat meaningless as a statement unless you have looked at the chemical constituents of the product.

The effects are clearly going to be dependent upon the actual chemicals in the product, as such it is not helpful to say that ‘solvent sniffing is harmful’ because although there is a lot of evidence that solvent sniffing of all sorts is harmful, it needs more clarification to be believable to those who sniff these things!  

If a blanket statement is made that sniffing solvents does ‘this’ and a child finds it doesn’t because the chemical which causes ‘this’ is not present in the product they have sniffed, then the warnings lose all credibility.

So we need to look at the common solvents in household and domestic products [other than glue and fuels which I have covered separately] and their effects.

In the tables overleaf I have listed some of the more widely used solvents as well as the products they are found in.  The following section then describes the toxicological effects.

Solvents and their uses

Acetone

CH3-C(=O)-CH3

Acetone is an organic compound.  It is a colorless, mobile, flammable liquid and the simplest example of the ketones. It is an important solvent, typically used for cleaning purposes.  Familiar household uses of acetone are as the active ingredient in nail polish remover and as paint thinner. Acetone is used for thinning fiberglass resin, cleaning fiberglass tools and dissolving two-part epoxies and superglue before hardening. It is used as a volatile component of some paints and varnishes. As a heavy-duty degreaser, it is useful in the preparation of metal prior to painting; it also thins polyester resins, vinyl and adhesives.

Benzene

C6H6

No longer used for household products

n-Butanol

CH3-CH2-CH2-CH2-OH

n-Butanol is a primary alcohol.  It is present in many foods and beverages. It is also a permitted artificial flavorant in the United States, used in butter, cream, fruit, rum, whiskey, ice cream and ices, candy, baked goods and cordials. It is also used in a wide range of consumer products.  n-Butanol is used as an ingredient in perfumes and as a solvent for the extraction of essential oils.   n-Butanol is also used a solvent for paints, coatings, natural resins, gums, synthetic resins, dyes, and camphor.  It is a component of brake fluids, cleaning formulations, degreasers, repellents and wood-treating systems.

 

Butanone

CH3C(O)CH2CH3

Butanone, also known as methyl ethyl ketone or MEK, is an organic compound.  This colorless liquid ketone has a sharp, sweet odour reminiscent of butterscotch and acetone.

Butanone is an effective and common solvent. For this reason it finds use in the manufacture of household products such as lacquer, varnishes, paint remover and as a cleaning agent. It has similar solvent properties to acetone but has a significantly slower evaporation rate. Butanone is also used in dry erase markers as the solvent of the erasable dye.  As butanone dissolves polystyrene, it is sold as "polystyrene cement" for use in connecting together parts of scale model kits. Though often considered an adhesive, it is actually functioning as a welding agent in this context.

 

Chloroform

CHCl3

Covered in a separate section

Cyclopentane

C5H10

Cyclopentane is a highly flammable alicyclic hydrocarbon It occurs as a colorless liquid with a petrol-like odor. It is used in the manufacture rubber adhesives [see glues]

Dichloromethane (DCM)

CH2Cl2

Dichloromethane (DCM or methylene chloride) is an organic compound.  It is a colorless, volatile liquid with a moderately sweet aroma widely used as a solvent. Dichloromethane's volatility and ability to dissolve a wide range of organic compounds makes it a useful solvent for many chemical processes. Concerns about its health effects have led to a search for alternatives in many of these applications.It is widely used as a paint stripper and a degreaser. In the food industry, it has been used to decaffeinate coffee and tea as well as to prepare extracts of hops and other flavorings.  Its volatility has led to its use as an aerosol spray propellant.  Often sold as a main component of plastic welding adhesives, it is also used extensively by model building hobbyists for joining plastic components together

Diethyl ether

CH3CH2-O-CH2-CH3

Covered in a separate section

Dimethylformamide (DMF)

H-C(=O)N(CH3)2

Dimethylformamide is the organic compound.  It is a  colourless liquid and  a common solvent. Pure dimethylformamide is odorless whereas technical grade or degraded dimethylformamide often has a fishy smell due to impurity of dimethylamine.  Dimethylformamide is used in the production of acrylic fibers and plastics. It is also used in the development and production of pesticides, and in the manufacture of adhesives.  It  frequently occurs as a component of paint strippers.

Dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO)

CH3-S(=O)-CH3

Dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) is an organosulfur compound.  It is a colourless liquid and an important industrial solvent being used for chemical reactions involving salts. It is also extensively used as an extractant in biochemistry and cell biology.  DMSO is finding increased use in manufacturing processes to produce microelectronic devices. It also used in biopreservation especially stem cell banking.  But  DMSO is an effective paint stripper.

 

In medicine, DMSO is used as a topical analgesic, a vehicle for topical application of pharmaceuticals, as an anti-inflammatory, and an antioxidant. Because DMSO increases the rate of absorption of some compounds through organic tissues, including skin, it can be used as a drug delivery system. It is frequently compounded with antifungal medications, enabling them to penetrate not just skin but also toe and fingernails.

1,4-Dioxane

/-CH2-CH2-O-CH2-CH2-O-\

1,4-Dioxane, often called dioxane is a heterocyclic organic compound. It is a colorless liquid with a faint sweet odor similar to that of diethyl ether. It is classified as an ether. Apart from its use as a stabilizer, dioxane is used in a variety of applications as a solvent, e.g. in inks and adhesives

Ethanol

CH3-CH2-OH

Ethanol, also called ethyl alcohol, pure alcohol or drinking alcohol, is a volatile, flammable, colorless liquid.  Best known as the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, it also has widespread use as a solvent of substances intended for human contact or consumption, including scents, flavorings, colourings, and medicines.  Ethanol is used in medical wipes and in most common antibacterial hand sanitizer gels at a concentration of about 62% v/v as an antiseptic.  Ethanol is also found in paints, tinctures, markers, and personal care products such as perfumes and deodorants.