A comparison of toluene and ethanol (EtOH) induced changes in central nervous system (CNS) function and symptoms were evaluated in two studies, and when possible the effects of toluene were expressed in EtOH equivalent units. The toluene concentrations were 0, 75, and 150 ppm, bracketing the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists threshold limit value (ACGIH TLV) of 100 ppm. The socially relevant EtOH doses were 0.00, 0.33, and 0.66 g EtOH/kg body weight, equivalent to two and four 3.5% 12 ounce beers. Forty two paid college students were used in each study. In the first study, subjects were exposed to toluene and an odour masking agent menthol (0.078 ppm) for seven hours over three days. In the second study EtOH or a placebo was administered at 1530 across three days also in the presence of menthol. Verbal and visual short term memory (Sternberg, digit span, Benton, pattern memory), perception (pattern recognition), psychomotor skill (simple reaction time, continuous performance, symbol-digit, hand-eye coordination, finger tapping, and critical tracking), manual dexterity (one hole), mood (profile on mood scales (POMS), fatigue (fatigue checklist), and verbal ability were evaluated at 0800, 1200, and 1600. Voluntary symptoms and observations of sleep were collected daily. A 3 x 3 latin square design evaluated solvent effects simultaneously controlling for learning and dose sequence. An analysis of variance and test for trend were performed on am-pm differences reflecting an eight hour workday and on pm scores for each solvent, in which subjects were their own control Intersubject variation in absorbance was monitored in breath. A 5 to 10% decrement was considered meaningful if consistent with a linear trend at p less than 0.05. At 150 ppm toluene, losses in performance were 6.0% for digit span, 12.1% for pattern recognition (latency), 5% for pattern memory (number correct), 6.5% for one hole, and 3% for critical tracking. The number of headaches and eye irritation also increased in a dose-response manner. The greatest effect was found for an increasing number of observations of sleep. A range of 2 to 7% decrements suggest the ACGIH TLV of 100 ppm toluene may be a good estimate of the biological threshold supporting a re-evaluation of the TLV. At 0.66 g EtOH/kg body weight symptoms and performance decrements were 6.6% for digit span, 9.2% for pattern recognition, 4.0% for continuous performance, 7.9% for symbol-digit, 16.5% for finger tapping, 6.2% for critical tracking, and 5.2% for the one hole test. The EtOH equivalents at 150 ppm toluene for digit span (0.56g EtOH/kg/body weight), the latency for pattern recognition (0.66 g EtOH kg body weight), and the one hole element "move" (0.37 g EtOH kg body weight) show that the first two measures would be affected at or above the 50 mg% blood alcohol concentration. This concentration is recognised as the lowest alcohol concentration associated with increased numbers of automobile accidents. The results suggest that EtOH may be a useful acute standard to compare the effects of various industrial solvents and support investigating an association between exposure to solvents and increased risk to safety in industry.
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