Objectives: Organic solvent exposure has been shown to cause hearing loss in animals and humans. Less is known about the risk of hearing loss due to solvent exposures typically found in US industry. The authors performed a retrospective cohort study to examine the relationship between solvent exposure and hearing loss in US aluminium industry workers.
Methods: A cohort of 1319 workers aged 35 years or less at inception was followed for 5 years. Linkage of employment, industrial hygiene and audiometric surveillance records allowed for estimation of noise and solvent exposures and hearing loss rates over the study period. Study subjects were classified as “solvent exposed” or not, on the basis of industrial hygiene records linked with individual job histories. High frequency hearing loss was modelled as both a continuous and a dichotomous outcome.
Results: Typical solvent exposures involved mixtures of xylene, toluene and/or methyl ethyl ketone (MEK). Recorded solvent exposure levels varied widely both within and between jobs. In a multivariate logistic model, risk factors for high frequency hearing loss included age (OR = 1.06, p = 0.004), hunting or shooting (OR = 1.35, p = 0.049), noisy hobbies (OR = 1.74, p = 0.01), baseline hearing level (OR = 1.04, p<0.001) and solvent exposure (OR = 1.87, p = 0.004). A multivariate linear regression analysis similarly found significant associations between high frequency hearing loss and age (p<0.001), hunting or shooting (p<0.001), noisy hobbies (p = 0.03), solvent exposure (p<0.001) and baseline hearing (p = 0.03).
Conclusion: These results suggest that occupational exposure to organic solvent mixtures is a risk factor for high frequency hearing loss, although the data do not allow conclusions about dose–response relationships. Industries with solvent-exposed workers should include such workers in hearing conservation programs.
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Funding: This study was funded in part by grants from CDC-NIOSH (1 R01 OH07724-01) and the Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Competing interests: Dr Rabinowitz, Dr Cullen, Mr Galusha, Mr Slade and Ms Fiellin provide consultant services to Alcoa Inc. under a research/service agreement with Yale University. Ms Dixon-Ernst is the corporate audiologist for Alcoa Inc.