White spirit is commonly used in many industries as a solvent in varnishes and lacquers, inks, degreasers, wood preservatives, aerosols, asphalt products and dry cleaning agents. It is the most commonly used solvent in the paint industry, with 60% of total white spirit consumption in Western Europe being utilised in the manufacture of paint, varnish and lacquers (IPCS, 1996). It is widely used domestically to 'thin' paints and for cleaning paint and varnish from decorating tools.

When interpreting the literature on white spirit toxicity, a few uncertainties remain. There are many epidemiological studies on the effect of chronic exposure to solvents, where white spirit is only part of a more complex exposure. It is difficult to identify the causative agents of occupational diseases when such solvent mixtures are involved (Pedersen et al., 1980). In addition, white spirit itself is a complex mixture of aliphatic, alicyclic and aromatic hydrocarbons, comprising over 200 compounds (Pfaffli et al., 1985; IPCS, 1996) and this makes it very difficult to establish a cause/effect relationship. Furthermore, in many of the human and animal studies, and the limited case reports, it is often unclear which class of white spirit is being referred to. Some investigating authors do clarify the matter and present a breakdown of the aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbon content of the solvent studied, but generally conclusions are ambiguous because of the wide range of hydrocarbons that the term white spirit encompasses. The various synonyms of white spirit (e.g., turpentine substitute, mineral spirits, Stoddard solvent) add to the confusion. They are sometimes used interchangeably, and in the older literature white spirit may be referred to simply as 'solvent' (e.g., in Braunstein, 1940).

House painters are an occupational group frequently investigated for possible toxic effects of mixed solvents (including white spirit), but in a report from the Commission of the European Communities investigating long-term neurotoxic effects in painters (CEC, 1990), one of the major limitations highlighted was the lack of exact knowledge about the nature and level of exposure. There are, however, a few studies where the dominant exposure is to white spirit (Arlien-Soborg et al., 1979, Seppalainen and Lindstrom, 1982; Bazylewicz-Walczak et al., 1990), but the effect of long-term exposure to white spirit alone is still unresolved.

White spirit has low acute toxicity by all routes of exposure. The main route of absorption and exposure is via inhalation. Systemic toxicity is rare and the main risk associated with exposure to white spirit is aspiration. Toxicity from white spirit predominantly affects the pulmonary system and less commonly the central nervous system, gastrointestinal, cardiac and dermatological systems. Ingestion of even small quantities can result in pulmonary aspiration of the liquid and subsequent chemical pneumonitis and pulmonary oedema (Gerade, 1963). There are rare reports of haematological (Scott et al., 1959; Kegels, 1958; Prager and Peters, 1970) and hepatic effects (Braunstein, 1940, Dossing et al., 1983). Workers with long-term white spirit exposure may gradually develop a chronic organic brain syndrome, often following a period of acute intoxication; this has been termed chronic painter's syndrome (Arlien-Soborg et al., 1979).

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