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Wisconsin Department of Health Services


Also known as: Toluol, Methylbenzene, Phenylmethane
Chemical reference number (CAS): 108-88-3

What is toluene?

Toluene is a common ingredient in degreasers. It’s a colorless liquid with a sweet smell and taste. It evaporates quickly. Toluene is found naturally in crude oil. It’s used in oil refining and the manufacturing of paints, lacquers, explosives (TNT) and glues. In homes, toluene may be found in paint thinners, paint brush cleaners, nail polish, glues, inks and stain removers. Toluene is also found in car exhaust and the smoke from cigarettes.

When toluene is spilled on the ground or improperly disposed, it can seep into soil and contaminate nearby wells and streams. Toluene can remain unchanged for a long time in soil or water that is not in contact with air.

How are people exposed to toluene?

Breathing: People are often exposed to high levels of toluene when they breathe vapors from paints, paint thinners, or glues. Breathing gasoline or car exhaust will also result in some exposure to toluene. People who live near industries using toluene may be exposed to the chemical in the air. If home water supplies are contaminated, people may inhale the chemical while washing, bathing or using water for other household purposes.

Some people intentionally inhale toluene to get "high." These people can be exposed to hazardous levels of the chemical.

Drinking/Eating: People may be exposed by drinking contaminated water, handling contaminated soils or touching their mouths or eating with dirty hands.

Touching: Although the chemical may irritate the skin, it passes through the skin slowly. People can be exposed to toluene when they touch the chemical, touch contaminated soil, or bathe in contaminated water.

Do standards exist for regulating toluene?

Water: The Wisconsin drinking water standard is 800 parts per billion (ppb) of toluene. We suggest you stop drinking water that contains higher levels. If levels of toluene are very high in your water, you should avoid washing, bathing, or using the water for other purposes. Contact your local public health agency for more information specific to your situation.

Air: No standards exist for regulating the amount of toluene allowed in the air of homes. However, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has set a residential indoor air action level for toluene at 1,400 parts per billion by volume (ppbv). The action level is considered to be protective of public health. Breathing toluene for a lifetime at 1,400 ppbv is very unlikely to be harmful to people. If toluene concentrations in air are above the action level, we recommend taking an action to halt exposure.

Most people can smell toluene at levels between 160 and 37,000 ppbv. If you can smell the chemical, the level may be too high to be safe.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources regulates the amount of toluene that can be released into outdoor ambient air by industries.

Will exposure to toluene result in harmful health effects?

The following symptoms may occur immediately or shortly after exposure to levels over 100,000 ppbv of toluene in air;

  • Tiredness, dizziness, headache, loss of coordination or hearing, euphoria, insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Eye and nose irritation
  • Rapid delay of reaction time, unconsciousness, and death at levels of 4,000 ppm (4,000,000 ppbv)

The worst effects of exposure to toluene have occurred in deliberate abusers of toluene. Most studies of workers exposed to moderate levels of toluene show no harmful health effects.

The following health effects can occur after several years of exposure to toluene:

Cancer: Research shows that toluene is unlikely to cause cancer.

Reproductive Effects: There are no indications toluene causes damage to reproductive organs. Toluene may affect the development of unborn babies.

Organ Systems: Damage to the brain, liver, bone marrow and kidneys can occur.

In general, chemicals affect the same organ systems in all people who are exposed. However, the seriousness of the effects may vary from person to person. A person's reaction depends on several things, including individual health, heredity, previous exposure to chemicals including medicines, and personal habits such as smoking or drinking.

It’s also important to consider the length of exposure to the chemical; the amount of chemical exposure; and whether the chemical was inhaled, touched, or eaten.

Can a medical test determine exposure to toluene?

The breakdown products of toluene, hipparic acid and cresol, can be measured in urine within 12 hours of a high level exposure. These measurements may not predict possible future health effects. Other medical tests may be helpful in determining damage to the nervous system, kidneys or liver.

Seek medical advice if you have any symptoms that you think may be related to chemical exposure.

(P-44351  Revised 05/2012)

This fact sheet summarizes information about this chemical and is not a complete listing of all possible effects. It does not refer to work exposure or emergency situations.

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Last Revised:  August 06, 2013