On This Page
Public Health Statement for Toluene
This Public Health Statement is the summary chapter from the Toxicological Profile for Toluene. It is one in a series of Public Health Statements about hazardous substances and their health effects. A shorter version, the ToxFAQs™, is also available. This information is important because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present. For more information, call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-888-422-8737.
This Public Health Statement summarizes the Division of Toxicology and Human Health Science's findings on toluene, tells you about them, the effects of exposure, and describes what you can do to limit that exposure..
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) identifies the most serious hazardous waste sites in the nation. U.S. EPA then includes these sites the National Priorities List (NPL) and targets it for federal clean-up activities. U.S. EPA has found toluene in at least 1,012 of the 1,699 current or former NPL sites. The total number of NPL sites evaluated for toluene is not known. But the possibility remains that as more sites are evaluated, the number of sites at which toluene is found may increase. This information is important; these sites may be sources of exposure, and exposure to toluene may be harmful.
When a contaminant is released from a large area such as an industrial plant or from a container such as a drum or bottle, it enters the environment. But such a release doesn't always lead to exposure. You can only be exposed to a contaminant when you come in contact with it. That contact–and therefore that exposure–can occur when you breathe, eat, or drink the contaminant, or when it touches your skin.
Exposure to toluene can affect different people in different ways. Whether you are harmed will depend on such factors as the dose (how much), the duration (how long), and how you happen to contact it. Harm might also depend on whether youâ€™ve been exposed to any other chemicals, as well as your age, sex, diet, family traits, lifestyle, and state of health.
What is Toluene?
Toluene is a clear, colorless liquid with a distinctive smell. It is a good solvent (a substance that can dissolve other substances). Toluene occurs naturally in crude oil and in the tolu tree. It is produced in the process of making gasoline and other fuels from crude oil and in making coke from coal.
Toluene is used in making paints, paint thinners, fingernail polish, lacquers, adhesives, and rubber and in some printing and leather tanning processes. It is used in the production of benzene, nylon, plastics, and polyurethane and the synthesis of trinitrotoluene (TNT), benzoic acid, benzoyl chloride, and toluene diisocyanate. It is also added to gasoline along with benzene and xylene to improve octane ratings.
Toluene can be released into the air, water, and soil at places where it is produced or used. Toluene is commonly found in air, particularly when there is heavy vehicular traffic. Monitoring data of outdoor air in the United States shows that toluene is present at average levels of approximately 1â€“35 parts per billion by volume (ppbv). Indoor air samples can contain higher levels of toluene in places where products such as paint thinners, solvents, or tobacco products are used.
Toluene can enter surface waters and groundwater (wells) from solvent and petroleum products spills. Toluene can also leak from underground storage tanks at gasoline stations and other facilities. When toluene-containing products are placed in landfills or waste disposal sites, toluene can enter the soil and water near the waste site. It is possible for toluene to be broken down in subsurface (below ground) water primarily by anaerobic microorganisms. Toluene will readily evaporate into the air or be degraded by microorganisms in surface waters. Leaking underground storage tanks can contaminate the soil with toluene and other petroleum-product components. Toluene in surface soils rapidly evaporates into the air. Toluene is readily broken down to other chemicals by microorganisms in the soil.
Toluene enters the environment when you use materials that contain it, such as paints, paint thinners, adhesives, fingernail polish, and gasoline; it evaporates rapidly from these materials and becomes mixed with the air you breathe.
Individuals who work with gasoline, paint, lacquer, or dyes have greater exposures to toluene, as do individuals who smoke or intentionally inhale products containing toluene for its euphoric effects.
Toluene can enter your body from the air, water, or soil. You are exposed to toluene by breathing outdoor or indoor air containing this substance. Gasoline contains toluene and so do some other products used in occupational or home settings (e.g., solvents, paint thinners). Inhalation and dermal exposure is possible when using these products.
Toluene is not frequently detected in drinking water. If you are using a well that has been contaminated by toluene from an accidental spill, you may ingest some; however, this route of exposure is less likely than breathing in toluene from air. Toluene evaporates quickly from soils. Therefore, it is unlikely you will be exposed to it from soil, unless you come in contact with soil near a hazardous waste site containing it or an accidental spill.
When you breathe toluene, it is taken directly into your blood from your lungs. Similarly, when you touch products containing toluene (e.g., nail polish remover) or bathe in water containing toluene, toluene can pass through your skin into your bloodstream. When you ingest food or drink containing toluene, it is also absorbed from your GI tract into your bloodstream. Factors such as your age, sex, body composition, and health status affect what happens to toluene once it is in your body.
After being taken into your body, the majority of toluene is removed from your body within a day; however, a small amount may accumulate in fat tissue with daily exposure. Toluene may leave your body unchanged in the air you breathe out or in your urine after some of it has been changed to other chemicals. Generally, your body turns toluene into less harmful chemicals such as hippuric acid.
A serious health concern is that toluene may have an effect on your nervous system (brain and nerves). Nervous system effects can be temporary, such as headaches, dizziness, or unconsciousness. However, effects such as incoordination, cognitive impairment, and vision and hearing loss may become permanent with repeated exposure, especially at concentrations associated with intentional solvent abuse. High levels of toluene exposure during pregnancy, such as those associated with solvent abuse, may lead to retardation of mental abilities and growth in children. Other health effects of potential concern may include immune, kidney, liver, and reproductive effects.
Single exposures to toluene or repeated exposures over a few weeks can cause headaches and sleepiness, and can impair your ability to think clearly. Whether or not toluene does this to you depends on the amount you take in, how long you are exposed, and your genetic susceptibility and age. One very dangerous activity is to expose yourself to a large amount of toluene in a short time by deliberately inhaling/sniffing paint or glue. At first, you will feel light-headed. If exposure continues, you can become dizzy, sleepy, or unconscious, and you might even die. Toluene causes death by interfering with the way you breathe and the way your heart beats. When exposure is stopped, the sleepiness and dizziness will go away and you will feel normal again.
Low to moderate, day-after-day exposure to toluene in your workplace can cause tiredness, confusion, weakness, drunken-type actions, memory loss, nausea, and loss of appetite. These symptoms usually disappear when exposure is stopped. You may experience some hearing and color vision loss after long-term daily exposure to toluene in the workplace. Combinations of toluene and some common medicines like aspirin and acetaminophen may increase the effects of toluene on your hearing. Researchers do not know if the low levels of toluene that you breathe at work will cause any permanent effects on your brain or body after many years. If you choose to repeatedly breathe in toluene from glue or paint thinners, you may permanently damage your brain. You may also experience problems with your speech, vision, or hearing, have loss of muscle control, loss of memory, poor balance, and decreased mental ability.
Some studies in people have shown reproductive effects, such as an increased risk of spontaneous abortions, from exposure to toluene in the workplace. However, other factors, such as exposure to other chemicals, smoking, and alcohol use, may have affected the results of the studies, so it is not possible to say whether toluene has reproductive effects in people. Additionally, exposure to high levels of toluene could possibly damage your kidneys and liver.
The effects of toluene on animals are similar to those seen in humans. The main effect of toluene is on the brain and nervous system, but animals exposed to moderate or high levels of toluene also show harmful effects in their liver, kidneys, and lungs and impaired immune function. Animal studies do not indicate that toluene exposure results in reproductive effects.
Studies in workers and animals exposed to toluene generally indicate that toluene is not carcinogenic (cancer-causing). The International Agency for Research on Cancer determined that toluene is not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity in humans (Group 3). The U.S. EPA determined there is inadequate information to assess the carcinogenic potential of toluene. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists determined that toluene is not classifiable as a human carcinogen (A4). The U.S. National Toxicology Program has not considered the carcinogenic potential of toluene.
This section discusses potential health effects of toluene exposure in humans from when theyâ€™re first conceived to 18 years of age, and how you might protect against such effects.
Children may breathe air contaminated with toluene by family use of glues, paints, or cleaning solvents, or by accidents involving products containing toluene. Toluene vapors are heavier than air and since young children are closer to the ground or floor because of their height, they may breathe more toluene than adults during accidental exposures. Also, children have faster breathing rates than adults and may therefore breathe in more toluene. Older children and adolescents may be exposed to toluene if they breathe household products containing it to get "high". Nursing mothers who breathe toluene in workplace air may transfer some toluene in breast milk to their infants. Toluene is not stored in the body. Toluene in the body either rapidly leaves or is turned into less harmful chemicals. Thus, nursing mothers, who do not currently work in jobs with toluene and who do not deliberately breathe large amounts of toluene, are expected to transfer very little toluene in breast milk.
The effects of toluene on children have not been studied very much, but toluene is likely to produce the same types of effects on the brain and nervous system in children as it does in adults. Some older children and adolescents who have repeatedly breathed large amounts of toluene to get high have developed loss of muscle control, loss of memory, poor balance, and decreased mental abilities. Some of these changes may last for a long time after toluene has left the body. Young animals exposed to toluene have shown changes in behavior, hearing loss, and chemical changes in their brains.
Human fetuses and newborn babies may be more sensitive to toluene than adults, because their bodies may not be as able to turn toluene into less harmful chemicals. Some animal studies suggest that young animals might be more susceptible to toluene effects on health; however, shortly after birth, human babies begin to develop the ability to turn toluene into less harmful chemicals. By the time children are 1â€“3 years of age, they may be equal to adults in this ability.
Some mothers who breathed large amounts of toluene during pregnancy to get high have had children with birth defects, including retardation of mental abilities and growth. Results from animal studies have found similar effects in newborn animals that had mothers that breathed large amounts of toluene during pregnancy; however, when the animal mothers breathed small amounts of toluene during pregnancy, no birth defects were found in their newborn animals. When pregnant animals breathe small amounts of toluene during pregnancy, studies show that very little toluene reaches the developing fetus.
If your doctor finds that you have been exposed to significant amounts of toluene, ask whether your children or unborn baby might also be exposed. Your doctor might need to ask your state health department to investigate.
Toluene is a solvent that is used in making paints, paint thinners, fingernail polish, lacquers, adhesives, and rubber. Toluene is added to gasoline and is used in some printing and leather tanning processes. Follow instructions on product labels to minimize exposure to toluene. Families can reduce their risk of exposure to toluene by using consumer products containing the chemical (such as paints, glues, inks, and stain removers) in well-ventilated areas. When not in use, toluene-containing products should be tightly covered to prevent evaporation into the air. Household chemicals should be stored out of the reach of young children to prevent accidental poisonings. Storing items that contain toluene in the shed or an outside location may reduce exposure. Always store household chemicals in their original labeled containers. Never store household chemicals in containers that children would find attractive to eat or drink from, such as old soda bottles. Keep your Poison Control Centerâ€™s number next to the phone.
Cook foods if possible. Evaporation due to cooking tends to decrease the amount of toluene found in hot foods or water. Use bottled water if you have concerns about the presence of toluene in your tap water. Prevent children from eating or playing in the dirt if you live near a waste site that has been contaminated with toluene.
Your children may be exposed to toluene by inhaling products that contain it. Sometimes, older children sniff household chemicals in an attempt to get high. Talk with children about the dangers of sniffing chemicals
Toluene and its breakdown products (metabolites) can be measured in blood and urine. However, the detection of toluene or its metabolites cannot predict the kind of health effects that might develop from that exposure. Because toluene and its metabolites leave the body fairly rapidly, the tests need to be conducted within days after exposure.
The federal government develops regulations and recommendations to protect public health. Regulations can be enforced by law. Federal agencies that develop regulations for toxic substances include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Recommendations provide valuable guidelines to protect public health but cannot be enforced by law. Federal organizations that develop recommendations for toxic substances include the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Regulations and recommendations can be expressed as "not-to-exceed" levels; that is, levels of a toxic substance in air, water, soil, or food that do not exceed a critical value usually based on levels that affect animals; levels are then adjusted to help protect humans. Sometimes these not-to-exceed levels differ among federal organizations. Different organizations use different exposure times (an 8-hour workday or a 24-hour day), different animal studies, or emphasize some factors over others, depending on their mission.
Recommendations and regulations are also updated periodically as more information becomes available. For the most current information, check with the federal agency or organization that issued the regulation or recommendation.
The EPA has recommended a drinking water guideline value of 1 mg/L for toluene. OSHA has set a legal limit for workers of 200 ppm for toluene in air averaged over an 8-hour workday. NIOSH has set a recommended limit of 100 ppm for toluene in air averaged over a 10-hour workday. ACGIH recommends that toluene in workplace air not exceed 20 ppm (average levels over 8 hours).
Where can I get more information?
If you have questions or concerns, please contact your community or state health or environmental quality department or:
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology and Human Health Sciences
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop F-57
Atlanta, GA 30329-4027
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO · 888-232-6348 (TTY)
Email: Contact CDC-INFO
ATSDR can also tell you the location of occupational and environmental health clinics. These clinics specialize in recognizing, evaluating, and treating illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances.
Information line and technical assistance:
To order toxicological profiles, contact:
National Technical Information Service
5285 Port Royal Road
Springfield, VA 22161
Phone: 800-553-6847 or 703-605-6000
Some PDF files may be electronic conversions from paper copy or other electronic ASCII text files. This conversion may have resulted in character translation or format errors. Users are referred to the original paper copy of the toxicological profile for the official text, figures, and tables. Original paper copies can be obtained via the directions on the toxicological profile home page, which also contains other important information about the profiles.
The information contained here was correct at the time of publication. Please check with the appropriate agency for any changes to the regulations or guidelines cited.
- Page last reviewed: January 21, 2015
- Page last updated: January 21, 2015
- Content source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry