Evaluation of long-term occupational exposure to styrene vapor on olfactory function

Pamela Dalton, Peter S.J. Lees, Michele Gould, Daniel Dilks, Aleksandr Stefaniak, Michael Bader, Andreas Ihrig, Gerhard Triebig

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16 Scopus citations


The primary sensory neurons of the olfactory system are chronically exposed to the ambient environment and may therefore be susceptible to damage from occupational exposure to many volatile chemicals. To investigate whether occupational exposure to styrene was associated with olfactory impairment, we examined olfactory function in 2 groups: workers in a German reinforced-plastics boat-manufacturing facility having a minimum of 2 years of styrene exposure (15-25 ppm as calculated from urinary metabolite concentrations, with historical exposures up to 85 ppm) and a group of age-matched workers from the same facility with lower styrene exposures. The results were also compared with normative data previously collected from healthy, unexposed individuals. Multiple measures of olfactory function were evaluated using a standardized battery of clinical assessments from the Monell-Jefferson Chemosensory Clinical Research Center that included tests of threshold sensitivity for phenylethyl alcohol (PEA) and odor identification ability. Thresholds for styrene were also obtained as a measure of occupational olfactory adaptation. Styrene exposure history was calculated through the use of past biological monitoring results for urinary metabolites of styrene (mandelic acid [MA], phenylglyoxylic acid [PGA]); current exposure was determined for each individual using passive air sampling for styrene and biological monitoring for styrene urinary metabolites. Current mean effective styrene exposure during the day of olfactory testing for the group of workers who worked directly with styrene resins was 18 ppm styrene (standard deviation [SD] = 14), 371 g/g creatinine MA + PGA (SD = 289) and that of the group of workers with lower exposures was 4.8 ppm (SD = 5.2), 93 g/g creatinine MA+PGA (SD = 100). Historic annual average exposures for all workers were greater by a factor of up to 6×. No differences unequivocally attributable to exposure status were observed between the Exposed and Comparison groups or between performance of either group and normative population values on thresholds for PEA or odor identification. Although odor identification performance was lower among workers with higher ongoing exposures, performance on this test is not a pure measure of olfactory ability and is influenced by familiarity with the stimuli and their sources. Consistent with exposure-induced sensory adaptation, however, elevated styrene thresholds were significantly associated with higher occupational exposures to styrene. In summary, the present study found no evidence among a cross-section of reinforced-plastics workers that current or historical exposure to styrene was associated with a general impairment of olfactory function. When taken together with prior studies of styrene-exposed workers, these results suggest that styrene is not a significant olfactory toxicant in humans at current exposure levels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)739-747
Number of pages9
JournalChemical Senses
Issue number8
StatePublished - Oct 2007


  • Adaptation
  • Biomonitoring
  • Occupational exposure
  • Olfactory function
  • Styrene

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Sensory Systems
  • Physiology (medical)
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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