Workplace Chemical Hazards & Liver Damage

How is the liver affected by chemicals in the workplace?

The liver is a complex organ that plays a central role in the detoxification and elimination of many chemicals. Many workplace chemicals can affect the liver in humans. 

The liver is highly susceptible to toxicity from chemicals in the workplace because of its important role in detoxification. The liver processes almost all chemicals and drugs that enter the blood stream and removes the chemicals that are difficult for the kidneys to excrete.  

The liver turns these chemicals into products that can be eliminated from the body through bile or urine. However, during this chemical process in the liver, unstable highly toxic bi-products are sometimes produced; these highly toxic bi-products can attack and injure the liver. 

The liver’s role in detoxification makes it is highly susceptible to toxicity, and for this reason, occupational exposure to chemicals should be a concern.  

Chemicals that are known to damage the liver are called hepatotoxins.  

The term hepatotoxicity is used to describe a liver that has been damaged by chemicals.

Do all chemicals affect the liver in the same way?

Toxins that can damage the liver have been divided into two groups:

Predictable Toxins

Predictable toxins are known to cause toxic hepatitis and liver damage with sufficient exposure to one or more of these chemicals. Examples of chemicals found in this group are cleaning solvents, carbon tetrachloride and the pain reliever acetaminophen.  

Unpredictable Toxins

Unpredictable toxins damage the liver in a very small proportion of individuals exposed to the chemical. Unpredictable injury produced by most drugs is very poorly understood, but recent data suggest that a toxic response to a drug probably depends on the kind of enzyme a person inherits to metabolize the drug.  

Reading the Safety Data Sheet for the chemicals you work with and understanding the hazards you are working with is an important step in prevention.

What is Toxic Hepatitis?

The liver is continually targeted by chemicals.   

Extended chemical exposure can cause genetic mutations that cause cancer. Common chemicals known to cause liver cancer are herbicides, vinyl chloride and arsenic.   

Toxic hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver caused by chemicals. Many chemicals that are intentionally or unintentionally inhaled or consumed can have toxic effects on the liver.

What Causes Toxic Hepatitis?

Toxic hepatitis can be caused by the inhalation or ingestion of various substances:

  1. Alcohol

    Heavy drinking over many years can lead to alcoholic hepatitis — inflammation in the liver due to alcohol.

  2. Nonprescription Pain Medication

    Nonprescription pain relievers you purchase over the counter can cause liver damage. acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and naproxen (Aleve, others) can damage your liver, especially with frequent use and if combined with alcohol.

  3. Prescription Medication

    Some prescription medications linked to serious liver injury include statin drugs used to treat high cholesterol, antivirals and anabolic steroids. We have displayed a list of combination drugs of particular concern.

  4. Herbs

    Some herbs are considered dangerous to the liver including aloe vera, black cohosh, cascara, chaparral, comfrey, kava and ephedra, to name a few.

  5. Workplace Chemicals

    Chemicals you may be exposed to on the job can cause liver injury. Common chemicals that can cause liver damage include the dry cleaning solvent carbon tetrachloride, a substance called vinyl chloride (used to make plastics), the herbicide paraquat and a group of industrial chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls.