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Workplace Exposure to Organic Solvents Linked to Heart Defects

July 19, 2012 — New research published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine has linked workplace exposure to organic solvents during pregnancy to a higher risk of having a baby with a heart defect. The researchers found that between 5-10% of babies exposed to solvents during their first trimester of development were born with a congenital heart defect. The baseline risk of a heart defect is between 1-3% of babies.

An organic solvent is a chemical that disperses substances such as fats, oils, and waxes. Organic solvents are also used in paints, varnishes, polymers, plastic, synthetic textiles, agricultural products, adhesives, degreasing/cleaning products, dyes, and printing inks.

These chemicals enter the body when they are inhaled through the lungs or absorbed through the skin.

The researchers wanted to determine whether pregnant women exposed to organic solvents in the workplace had a higher risk of having a baby with a birth defect. The study population involved 5,000 women throughout the U.S. who delivered a baby from 1997 through 2002 and were participants in the National Birth Defects Prevention Study.

The researchers then analyzed the data looking for associations between higher solvent exposure and 15 categories of heart defects. Solvents were categorized as chlorinated solvents, aromatic solvents, and Stoddard solvents.

Each woman’s level of workplace exposure to solvents was assessed, from just before pregnancy until the end of the first trimester. The researchers used two methods to make this assessment: one based on expert consensus, and one based on published literature.

When researchers analyzed the data with each woman’s solvent exposure based on expert consensus, they found 5% of fetuses exposed to a solvent had a birth defect, most commonly a ventricular septal defect (hole in the heart). When the researchers used the literature-based approach, they found an 8-10% increased risk of heart defects — including aortic stenosis (narrowing of the aortic valve and/or aorta), transposition of the great arteries, right ventricular outflow obstruction defects, and pulmonary valve stenosis.

The researchers concluded that workplace exposure to organic solvents in the month before pregnancy until the end of the first trimester is associated with an increased risk of having a baby with a heart defect.

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