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Toluene And All That

UE News, October 1994

TOLUENE IS A TOXIC SOLVENT, widely found in industry, offices and home products. Its use has increased greatly in recent years, especially as a substitute for the more toxic solvent, benzene. After all, benzene causes leukemia, a cancer of the blood; toluene has not been found to cause cancer in humans or in animals.

Toluene is used as a solvent in paints, inks, dyes, paint thinners, varnishes and shellacs, and in cosmetics such as nail polish. It is used in airplane glue and other glues. It is used in some printing operations, by the chemical, paint and pharmaceutical industries and in petroleum refining. In fact, toluene makes up 5 to 7 percent of gasoline weight, so it is also an important component of automobile exhaust. This means that tollbooth employees have high levels of exposure to toluene, as well as to carbon monoxide and other gases and hydrocarbons.

Toluene levels also tend to build up in enclosed spaces, such as offices and homes. Lots of office products — glues, paints, aerosols, cleaning solutions — contain toluene. Also, toluene is an important by-product of cigarette smoking.

If you are using a chemical or other product which might contain toxic solvents, ask your employer for a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) on the material. Under the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (Section 1910.1200), your employer must let you see and copy the MSDS within 15 working days. Better yet, ask the health and safety committee reps to get it for you.

Toluene can go under several chemical and trade names: methybenezene, toluol, methylbenzol, phenylmethane and methacide. Often the presence of toluene will be covered up by lumping it in with other solvents under the catch-all name, "petroleum distillates."


The most immediate symptoms of toluene overexposure are dizziness, light-headedness and a sense of euphoria similar to being drunk. (The doctors call these symptoms "central nervous system depression.") If high levels of exposure continue, an exposed person will have other symptoms of being drunk, like problems with speech, vision and balance, followed eventually by sleepiness, coma and even occasionally death. High levels of toluene also irritate the nose, throat and lower respiratory system.

Inhaling toluene can also disrupt the normal rhythm of the heart, occasionally causing heart failure and death. This happens with some regularity to teenagers and others who sniff glue to get a "high." Sometimes this happens when glue sniffing takes place soon after strenuous physical activity. Often it strikes for no apparent reason. People who know they have heart disease or a heart arrhythmia should avoid unnecessary toluene exposure whenever possible.

Toluene is also flammable. At temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, it will burn and flashback when ignited. So keep sources of ignition — matches, lighters, heaters, potential sparks — away from toluene vapors. Also toluene reacts violently with chlorine, permanganates and dichromates — so make sure these are also kept away from toluene.


Toluene and other flammable solvents, paints and other materials should be stored either outdoors or in an isolated spot int he plant or in a special safety storage cabinet. Rooms need to be well-ventilated, preferably with an exhaust ventilation system. Proper, well maintained fire extinguishers, inspected quarterly or semi-annually, should be available near the potential site of fire.

In case of a large spill, be sure to wear a respirator with an organic vapor cartridge or a powered air-purifying respirator or a supplied air respirator. They have to be fit tested on you in advance of any emergency. If you just put on any old respirator during an emergency, it may leak so badly around your face that it is useless, and only gives the illusion of protection. Also during a spill clean-up, make sure you are provided with proper protective clothing. It is important to check in advance that the material is a good one for use with solvents — some materials are better than others, and some are positively the wrong ones to use with a particular chemical like toluene. Good clothing materials for toluene include PVA, NBR, polyethylene and Viton clothing.

If someone is overexposed to toluene, get them out to the fresh air, remove any clothes soaked with the solvent, and keep them warm and quiet. If necessary, give artificial respiration.

In case of a splash into the eyes, get to an eye station quickly and wash eyes with large amounts of water for at least 15 minutes. Get immediate medical attention. If the person has swallowed any toluene, do not induce vomiting. Again, get medical attention quickly.

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