Can Working With Chemicals Cause Hearing Loss?

It’s common knowledge that working in the construction industry can put you at risk for work-related injuries. From working at great heights with the risk of falling, to operating loud machinery that can cause noise-induced hearing loss, there’s ample opportunity for something to go wrong if proper safety procedures aren’t followed. But, what about some of the seemingly innocent parts of the job, like working with chemicals? Can they cause health problems like hearing loss?

The short answer is yes. Not every time, and not every chemical, but yes, there are ototoxic chemicals that can temporarily or permanently affect your hearing. Something that is ototoxic is simply toxic, or harmful, to the ear, including the auditory nerve, the cochlea, and the vestibular system.

Chemicals that may cause hearing loss

Research continues on exactly what can be classified as ototoxic chemicals, but here are a few that the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has identified as being potentially dangerous:

  • Arsenic
  • Benzene
  • Carbon disulfide
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Styrene
  • Trichloroethylene
  • Toluene
  • Xylene

Many of these names may sound foreign, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t used them. They can be found in paints, varnishes, pesticides, cleaning agents, and many other commonly used products. Without a warning on the product’s label, you would likely never know that you’re being exposed to a potentially ototoxic chemical. A side note here: the list above includes things that the average homeowner would come in contact with simply by doing some home improvement projects. This is important information for everyone to know, not just construction workers.

How can using ototoxic chemicals lead to hearing loss?

We don’t ingest these chemicals, and using some of them doesn’t create a lot of noise (you’ve probably never felt the need to wear hearing protection when painting, right?), so how do they affect your ears? They enter your body either by inhalation or skin absorption. Over time, the fumes and gases these chemicals give off can damage the tiny hairs or nerve fibers in the inner ear. The end result can be hearing loss, tinnitus (that annoying ringing in your ears), or balance difficulties.

How do you know when you are exposed to ototoxic chemicals?

You probably will not know every time you’re exposed to a chemical that could be dangerous to your hearing. You can educate yourself, however, on the most common culprits, read labels, and ask questions. The more you know, the better the chance of being able to prevent hearing damage. Regardless, if you experience any of these symptoms when using chemicals, it’s a good idea to leave the work area and get some fresh air:

  • Dizziness
  • Blurry vision
  • Headache
  • “Full” sensation in your ear

How to protect yourself from ototoxic chemicals

Since avoiding these chemicals altogether is not realistic, here are some ways you can protect yourself from their dangerous side effects:

  • Use alternate chemicals – Whenever possible, use the most natural version of the product that you can find.
  • Read labels and safety data sheets – Ototoxicity is not always clearly identified but ototoxic chemicals can also cause nerve or kidney damage, which may be included in the printed safety information.
  • Use proper ventilation – If you must work with these chemicals, use them in well ventilated areas.
  • Wear personal protective equipment – Wearing gloves or a respirator, for example, can help limit your exposure.

Whether you work in the construction industry or not, pay attention to the chemicals you use so you can protect your health. And, if you notice any hearing changes, contact a local hearing professional right away for a thorough evaluation.

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