With 1 out of every 4 American workers have been repeatedly exposed to dangerous noise, or 12% of the US working population, noise might be the greatest occupational risk to hearing. However, it is not the only one. When workers are exposed to certain chemicals it can damage hearing permanently. These chemicals are known as ototoxic, meaning that they can cause hearing impairments, when overly exposed.
Chemical Induced Hearing Loss
Many times, when chemicals cause hearing loss at work or due to environmental exposure, the cause is rarely diagnosed. There are more than 750 different groups of chemicals labeled as potentially ototoxic and it is very seldom that a healthcare provider can identify the chemical which caused the exposure. However, ototoxic chemicals have the ability to cause irreversible hearing loss, causing damage to the cochlea on both sides.
Ototoxins can be ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin, damaging the cochlea and the tiny hair cells of the inner ear, called stereocilia. Stereocilia transmit audio information from the ears to the brain. When they are damaged it limits the amount of sound information you are able to hear.
Common Ototoxic Chemicals
Solvents usually in liquid form are used to dissolve or extract other materials. They are also the most commonly identified ototoxic chemical. Solvents in the workplace may be used for machines or cleaning products. They may also come in the forms of gases, paints, metals, and pesticides. Ototoxic solvents may amplify the effects of noise induced hearing loss. This is because noise elevates blood flow in the inner ear, which acts as a catalyst for ototoxic solvents to cause damage to the inner ear. In the workplace, the most common solvents include xylene, toluene, kerosene, ethanol, methanol, acetone, turpentine and mineral spirits. They are usually clear, colorless liquids with a strong smell. Other chemicals associated with hearing loss are benzene, carbon disulfide, ethylbenzene, hydrogen cyanide, lead, and mercury.
Occupations which Expose you to Ototoxicity
Some of the most common workplace environments which use and expose workers to ototoxic chemicals include construction sites, firefighting, mechanic shops, furniture building, refueling stations, boat building, painters, printers, welding, leatherworking and working with any petroleum products. In many of these jobs it is important to note that there are many opportunities for noise exposure. The chemicals play a part in amplifying the damage due to noise.
Effects of Ototoxicity
If you are exposed to ototoxic chemicals, you may not be aware that they are damaging your ears. Some of the first signs may manifest themselves as balance issues and tinnitus. You may feel yourself dealing with dizziness and vertigo where you didn’t before. If you are pregnant, extra care must be taken as these chemicals can affect your child as well.
Medications and chemicals such as Accutane, Dilantin, alcohol, and some used during chemotherapy can affect the fetus. Post-birth, medications such as aminoglycoside antibiotics, diuretics, and others can cause hearing damage.
Understanding Your Medications
You can protect your hearing by limiting using drugs that you know are ototoxic unless you absolutely need to. If you are taking multiple medications, research them. Know which ones could damage your hearing and avoid taking two ototoxic medications at the same time. Some common ototoxic medications include aspirin, quinine, loop diuretics, and aminoglycosides.
Be Aware of Your Exposure
Employers must provide health and safety information as well as training to workers exposed to hazardous materials, including ototoxic chemicals. Make sure you know which chemicals are ototoxic in your workplace and limit your exposure. When using airborne ototoxic chemicals, good ventilation should be used. Make sure windows are open, turn on fans away from people and use the chemical only for the time you absolutely need it. It may also be helpful to stay well hydrated.
Treating Hearing Loss
Preservation and prevention are the best ways to ensure healthy hearing. If you have sustained hearing loss due to exposure to ototoxic chemicals, the results are usually permanent. The good news is that you can treat your hearing loss, it can be treated effectively using hearing aids. These amazing devices fit in your ear canal and amplify the sounds you may have lost, so you can participate in conversation, focus on work and connect to the people in your life. If you suspect you have hearing loss due to exposure to ototoxic chemicals, schedule an appointment for a hearing test today.