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Published on May 28, 2015
Toluene (C7H8) is a volatile organic compound (VOC) that is widely used in industry. It is a clear, colorless liquid with a strong, sweet and pungent odor that occurs naturally in crude oil. It is also produced in the process of making gasoline and other fuels from crude oil and making coke from coal. Toluene is used in making numerous products, such as paints, paint thinners, fingernail polish, spot removers, lacquers, adhesives, rubber, antifreeze, and in some printing and leather tanning processes.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the largest industrial use of toluene is in the production of benzene, a chemical used to make plastics and synthetic fibers. Toluene is also used to boost the octane of gasoline.
People can be exposed to toluene both indoors and outdoors by breathing automobile exhaust, pumping gasoline, consuming contaminated food or water, or using other products that contain toluene, such as kerosene, heating oil, paints and lacquers. In the work environment, people can be exposed to toluene by breathing contaminated air or through skin contact.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states, “The central nervous system (CNS) is the primary target organ for toluene toxicity in both humans and animals for acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) exposures.” Exposure to low to moderate levels can cause tiredness, confusion, weakness, memory loss, nausea, loss of appetite, and hearing and color vision loss. Exposure to high levels can result in unconsciousness and even death.
Toluene has been listed since 1991 on California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. There are test methods to identify toluene from both indoor and outdoor environments.
These are just a few things to know about toluene and potential exposure concerns for workers and the public. To learn more about this or other indoor air quality, health and safety, occupational or other environmental issues, please visit the websites shown below.