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ToxFAQs™ for Carbon Disulfide
This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions about carbon disulfide. For more information, you may call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-888-422-8737. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. 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.
Exposure to carbon disulfide can occur by breathing it in the air and by drinking water or eating foods that contain it. Breathing very high levels can be life threatening because of its effects on the nervous system. Breathing low levels for long periods may result in headaches, tiredness, trouble sleeping, and slight changes in the nerves. Carbon disulfide has been found in at least 210 of the 1,430 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is carbon disulfide?
Pure carbon disulfide is a colorless liquid with a pleasant odor that is like the smell of chloroform. The impure carbon disulfide that is usually used in most industrial processes is a yellowish liquid with an unpleasant odor, like that of rotting radishes.
Carbon disulfide evaporates at room temperature, and the vapor is more than twice as heavy as air. It easily explodes in air and also catches fire very easily.
In nature, small amounts of carbon disulfide are found in gases released to the earth's surface as, for example, in volcanic eruptions or over marshes. Commercial carbon disulfide is made by combining carbon and sulfur at very high temperatures.
What happens to carbon disulfide when it enters the environment?
- The amount of carbon disulfide released into the air through natural processes is difficult to judge because it is so small.
- Carbon disulfide evaporates rapidly when released to the environment.
- Most carbon disulfide in the air and surface water is from manufacturing and processing activities.
- It is found naturally in coastal and ocean waters.
- Carbon disulfide does not stay dissolved in water very long, and it also moves through soils fairly quickly.
- Carbon disulfide does not appear to be taken up in significant amounts by the organisms living in water.
How might I be exposed to carbon disulfide?
- The people most often exposed to carbon disulfide are workers in plants that use carbon disulfide in their manufacturing processes.
- People may be exposed by breathing air, drinking water, or eating foods that contain it.
- People may also be exposed through skin contact with soil, water, or other substances that contain carbon disulfide.
How can carbon disulfide affect my health?
At very high levels, carbon disulfide may be life-threatening because of its effects on the nervous system. People who breathed carbon disulfide near an accident involving a railroad car showed changes in breathing and some chest pains.
Some workers who breathed high levels during working hours for at least 6 months had headaches, tiredness, and trouble sleeping. However, these workers may have been exposed to other chemicals besides carbon disulfide. Among workers who breathed lower levels, some developed very slight changes in their nerves.
Studies in animals indicate that carbon disulfide can affect the normal functions of the brain, liver, and heart. After pregnant rats breathed carbon disulfide in the air, some of the newborn rats died or had birth defects.
High concentrations of carbon disulfide have caused skin burns when the chemical accidentally touched people's skin.
How likely is carbon disulfide to cause cancer?
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the EPA have not classified carbon disulfide for carcinogenicity.
There are no definitive data in humans or animals that indicate a carcinogenic potential for carbon disulfide.
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to carbon disulfide?
One chemical test using urine can be done to tell whether the levels of breakdown substances from carbon disulfide are higher than normal. However, the test is not specific for carbon disulfide exposure.
A second test based on a specific breakdown substance is more sensitive and specific. It also requires special equipment and cannot tell you exactly how much carbon disulfide you were exposed to or predict whether harmful effects will occur.
These tests aren't available at most doctors' offices, but can be done at special laboratories that have the right equipment.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The EPA requires that spills or accidental releases into the environment of 100 pounds or more of carbon disulfide be reported to the EPA.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set a limit of 20 parts of carbon disulfide per million parts of air (20 ppm) for an 8-hour workday for a 40-hour workweek.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that workroom air levels of carbon disulfide not exceed 1ppm for a 10-hour workday, 40-hour workweek.
Carcinogenicity: Ability of a substance to cause cancer.
CAS: Chemical Abstracts Service.
Dissolve: To disappear gradually.
Evaporate: To change into vapor or a gas.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 1996. Toxicological Profile for Carbon Disulfide. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
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 30333
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO · 888-232-6348 (TTY)
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: March 3, 2011
- Page last updated: October 25, 2011
- Content source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry