What is MEK?


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MEK, which stands for Methyl Ethyl Ketone, is a liquid solvent commonly used in a variety of products such as paints and glues, in printing inks and in the production of paraffin wax. It is also known as ‘butanone-2’ or ‘methyl acetone’.

The colourless liquid is very similar to acetone in smell and is highly flammable. It evaporates quickly which is one of the main reasons why the liquid is used as an industrial solvent.

MEK is also used in the manufacture of plastics, textiles and synthetic rubber.

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What is MEK poisoning and what are the symptoms?

Though it is not considered as a health threat, exposure to MEK solvent can develop into MEK poisoning which can cause a number of health problems and complaints.

If an individual’s skin is exposed to the liquid frequently over a long period of time (which could be weeks, months or years – depending on the circumstances), dermatitis or very dry, chapped, itchy skin could occur.

Regarding contact with eyes, they can become very red and sore, whether they have had direct contact with the liquid or through vapour in the air. Long term damage to the eyes is unlikely.

If MEK is inhaled or swallowed, an individual is likely to develop MEK poisoning. Symptoms of this include:

  • Irritation to the nose and/or throat
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Nausea

If there is a high level of exposure to MEK, a person may faint, blackout or become unconscious.

If the solvent is drawn into the lungs, it can cause severe damage which, in extreme cases, could result in death.

Chronic exposure to MEK can damage the central nervous system and have an effect on a person’s memory. However, there have only been a few studies on the long term effects of MEK exposure so additional consequences may be unknown.

Can MEK poisoning be prevented?

Like most things in the workplace, there are measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of exposure to MEK solvent. It is important that these measures are followed to limit any exposure to the liquid, especially as it is still fully unclear what damage can be sustained from long term exposure.

Steps that can (and should) be taken in the workplace where MEK is used:

  • MEK should be kept away from any heat or sources of ignition
  • MEK should be stored in a cool, dry, well-ventilated environment
  • All people working in an environment where MEK is used should be provided with sufficient protective clothing and equipment – and employees are responsible for ensuring that all workers wear their protective equipment
  • Workplaces where MEK is used should have a source of fresh air and be well ventilated

'The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations' or 'COSHH' have detailed regulations in place which are there to protect workers from all chemicals and substances in the workplace, including MEK.

Can I make a claim for MEK poisoning?

If you have been exposed to MEK solvent in the workplace and have suffered health problems as a direct result, then you may be entitled to claim compensation. It must be provable that your exposure to the solvent was the result of negligence by your employer and not the fault of your own.

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