What Is Toluene?

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  • Written By: Britt Archer
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2019
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Toluene is a clear chemical with a strong and distinctive scent. Found in nature in a type of balsam tree called the tolu balsam, as well as in crude oil; toluene is also present in the environment as a result of its use as an additive in such products as nail polish, cigarettes, gasoline, dyes, perfume, explosives, paints and thinners, adhesives, and other manufactured goods. The chemical can affect a person’s health when it is breathed in, or when water contaminated with it is ingested. Despite the chemical’s known hazards, enough evidence does not exist to list it definitively as a carcinogen.

People who smoke are exposed to toluene when they inhale tobacco smoke. In other instances, people can be exposed to it by drinking or coming in contact with contaminated water supplies. This contamination can happen when industrial storage tanks leak, or when industrial plants release the chemical into the environment, perhaps by inadvertent spillage.


Toluene, also known as toluol, methylbenzene, phenylmethane, and methylbenzol, is toxic and exposure that causes symptoms requires a doctor’s attention. Limited exposure can affect the nervous system when it is breathed in, and it can affect coordination and cause headaches, confusion and dizziness. Greater exposure caused by repeated instances of contact with the chemical presents a more serious health risk that can lead to death. A person who breathes in great amounts of toluene can suffer a loss of hearing, tremors and memory loss, among other symptoms. Drinking toluene-laced water can lead to similar symptoms. The chemical also can affect a person’s health through contact with the skin.

This chemical has been abused as an inhalant, and when used this way it can cause permanent changes to the human brain through repeated exposure in high concentrations. In daily living, people can be exposed to its vapors from car exhaust, contaminated air in a workplace or from breathing the vapors while painting machinery or polishing the fingernails with certain nail lacquers. Exposure also can occur when living near a site that has been contaminated, such as a waste or dump site, or when working daily with products that have been made with the chemical, such as heating oil, kerosene and gasoline.

Exposure threatens children as well as adults. Children can experience symptoms similar to those adults face when exposed to the chemical. Pregnant women also are greatly affected because exposure to high levels can lead to physical birth defects and also affect a baby’s mental capabilities.


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