Ethylbenzene is a colorless liquid that smells like gasoline. You can smell ethylbenzene in the air at concentrations as low as 2 parts of ethylbenzene per million parts of air by volume (ppm). It evaporates at room temperature and burns easily. Ethylbenzene occurs naturally in coal tar and petroleum. It is also found in many products, including paints, inks, and insecticides. Gasoline contains about 2% (by weight) ethylbenzene. Ethylbenzene is used primarily in the production of styrene. It is also used as a solvent, a component of asphalt and naphtha, and in fuels. In the chemical industry, it is used in the manufacture of acetophenone, cellulose acetate, diethylbenzene, ethyl anthraquinone, ethylbenzene sulfonic acids, propylene oxide, and -methylbenzyl alcohol. Consumer products containing ethylbenzene include pesticides, carpet glues, varnishes and paints, and tobacco products. In 1994, approximately 12 billion pounds of ethylbenzene were produced in the United States.
Pathways for ethylbenzene in the environment
Ethylbenzene is most commonly found as a vapor in the air. This is because ethylbenzene moves easily into the air from water and soil. Once in the air, other chemicals help break down ethylbenzene into chemicals found in smog. This breakdown happens in less than 3 days with the aid of sunlight. In surface water such as rivers and harbors, ethylbenzene breaks down by reacting with other compounds naturally present in the water. In soil, the majority of ethylbenzene is broken down by soil bacteria. Since ethylbenzene binds only moderately to soil, it can also move downward through soil to contaminate groundwater. Near hazardous waste sites, the levels of ethylbenzene in the air, water, and soil could be much higher than in other areas.
Exposure to ethylbenzene
There are a variety of ways you may be exposed to this chemical. If you live in a highly populated area or near many factories or heavily traveled highways, you may be exposed to ethylbenzene in the air. Releases of ethylbenzene into these areas occur from burning oil, gas, and coal and from discharges of ethylbenzene from some types of factories. The median level of ethylbenzene in city and suburban air is about 0.62 parts of ethylbenzene per billion parts (ppb) of air. In contrast, the median level of ethylbenzene measured in air in country locations is about 0.01 ppb. Indoor air has a higher median concentration of ethylbenzene (about 1 ppb) than outdoor air. This is because ethylbenzene builds up after you use household products such as cleaning products or paints.
Ethylbenzene was found in only one of ten U.S. rivers and streams tested in 1982 and 1983. The average level measured was less than 5.0 ppb. Ethylbenzene gets into water from factory releases, boat fuel, and poor disposal of waste. Background levels in soils have not been reported. Ethylbenzene may get into the soil by gasoline or other fuel spills and poor disposal of industrial and household wastes.
Some people are exposed to ethylbenzene in the workplace. Gas and oil workers may be exposed to ethylbenzene either through skin contact or by breathing ethylbenzene vapors. Varnish workers, spray painters, and people involved in gluing operations may also be exposed to high levels of ethylbenzene. Exposure may also occur in factories that use ethylbenzene to produce other chemicals.
You may be exposed to ethylbenzene if you live near hazardous waste sites containing ethylbenzene or areas where ethylbenzene spills have occurred. Higher-than-background levels of ethylbenzene were detected in groundwater near a landfill and near an area where a fuel spill had occurred. No specific information on human exposure to ethylbenzene near hazardous waste sites is available.
You may also be exposed to ethylbenzene from the use of many consumer products. Gasoline is a common source of ethylbenzene exposure. Other sources of ethylbenzene exposure come from the use of this chemical as a solvent in pesticides, carpet glues, varnishes and paints, and from the use of tobacco products. Ethylbenzene does not generally build up in food. However, some vegetables may contain very small amounts of it.
Pathways for ethylbenzene in the body
When you breathe air containing ethylbenzene vapor, it enters your body rapidly and almost completely through your lungs. Ethylbenzene in food or water can also rapidly and almost completely enter your body through the digestive tract. It may enter through your skin when you come into contact with liquids containing ethylbenzene. Ethylbenzene vapors do not enter through your skin to any large degree. People living in urban areas or in areas near hazardous waste sites may be exposed by breathing air or by drinking water contaminated with ethylbenzene. Once in your body, ethylbenzene is broken down into other chemicals. Most of it leaves in the urine within 2 days. Small amounts can also leave through the lungs and in feces. Liquid ethylbenzene that enters through your skin is also broken down. Ethylbenzene in high levels is broken down slower in your body than low levels of ethylbenzene. Similarly, ethylbenzene mixed with other solvents is also broken down more slowly than ethylbenzene alone. This slower breakdown will increase the time it takes for ethylbenzene to leave your body.
Health effects of ethylbenzene
To protect the public from the harmful effects of toxic chemicals and to find ways to treat people who have been harmed, scientists use many tests.
You should know that one way to learn whether a chemical will harm people is to determine how the body absorbs, uses, and releases the chemical. For some chemicals, animal testing may be necessary. Animal testing may also help identify such health effects as cancer or birth defects. Without laboratory animals, scientists would lose a basic method for getting information needed to make wise decisions that protect public health. Scientists have the responsibility to treat research animals with care and compassion. Scientists must comply with strict animal care guidelines because laws today protect the welfare of research animals.
Additionally, there are vigorous national and international efforts to develop alternatives to animal testing. The efforts focus on both in vitro and in silico approaches and methods. For example, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) created the NTP Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods (NICEATM) in 1998. The role of NICEATM is to serve the needs of high quality, credible science by facilitating development and validation—and regulatory and public acceptance—of innovative, revised test methods that reduce, refine, and replace the use of animals in testing while strengthening protection of human health, animal health and welfare, and the environment. In Europe, similar efforts at developing alternatives to animal based testing are taking place under the aegis of the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM).
At certain levels, exposure to ethylbenzene can harm your health. People exposed to high levels of ethylbenzene in the air for short periods have complained of eye and throat irritation. Persons exposed to higher levels have shown signs of more severe effects such as decreased movement and dizziness. No studies have reported death in humans following exposure to ethylbenzene alone. However, evidence from animal studies suggests that it can cause death at very high concentrations in the air (about 2 million times the usual level in urban air). Whether or not long-term exposure to ethylbenzene affects human health is not known because little information is available. Short-term exposure of laboratory animals to high concentrations of ethylbenzene in air may cause liver and kidney damage, nervous system changes, and blood changes. The link between these health effects and exposure to ethylbenzene is not clear because of conflicting results and weaknesses in many of the studies. Also, there is no clear evidence that the ability to get pregnant is affected by breathing air or drinking water containing ethylbenzene, or coming into direct contact with ethylbenzene through the skin. Two long-term studies in animals suggest that ethylbenzene may cause tumors. One study had many weaknesses, and no conclusions could be drawn about possible cancer effects in humans. The other, a recently completed study, was more convincing, and provided clear evidence that ethylbenzene causes cancer in one species after exposure in the air to concentrations greater than 740 ppm that were approximately 1 million times the levels found in urban air. At present, the federal government has not identified ethylbenzene as a chemical that may cause cancer in humans. However, this may change after consideration of the new data.
There are no reliable data on the effects in humans after eating or drinking ethylbenzene or following direct exposure to the skin. For this reason, levels of exposure that may affect your health after eating, drinking, or getting ethylbenzene on your skin are estimated from animal studies. There are only two reports of eye or skin exposure to ethylbenzene. In these studies, liquid ethylbenzene caused eye damage and skin irritation in rabbits. More animal studies are available that describe the effects of breathing air or drinking water containing ethylbenzene.
Health effects in children
Since ethylbenzene is contained in many consumer products (including gasoline, paints, inks, pesticides, and carpet glue), it is possible for children to be exposed to ethylbenzene, especially by inhalation. Children might also be exposed to ethylbenzene from hazardous waste. Ethylbenzene vapors are heavier than air, and children generally spend more time on the floor or ground than do adults. We do not know whether children would be different than adults in their weight-adjusted intake of ethylbenzene.
No data describe the effect of exposure to ethylbenzene on children or immature animals. It is likely that children would show the same health effects as adults. Respiratory and eye irritation and dizziness are the most prevalent signs of exposure to high levels of ethylbenzene in adults, and children would probably also exhibit these effects. We do not know whether children differ in their susceptibility to the effects of ethylbenzene. We do not know whether ethylbenzene causes birth defects in people. Minor birth defects have occurred in newborn animals whose mothers were exposed by breathing air contaminated with ethylbenzene.
We do not know whether ethylbenzene can cross the placenta to an unborn child or accumulate significantly in breast milk.
Reducing risk of exposure to ethylbenzene
If your doctor finds that you have been exposed to significant amounts of ethylbenzene, ask your doctor if children may also be exposed. When necessary your doctor may need to ask your state public heath department to investigate.
Ethylbenzene is found in consumer products including gasoline, pesticides, carpet glues, varnishes, paints, and tobacco products. Exposure to ethylbenzene vapors from household products and newly installed carpeting can be minimized by using adequate ventilation. Household chemicals should be stored out of reach of young children to prevent accidental poisonings. Always store household chemicals in their original labeled containers; never store household chemicals in containers children would find attractive to eat or drink from, such as old soda bottles. Gasoline should be stored in a gasoline can with a locked cap. Keep your Poison Control Center's number by the phone. To minimize exposure, children should be kept out of areas where products that contain ethylbenzene are being used. Sometimes older children sniff household chemicals in an attempt to get high. Your children may be exposed to ethylbenzene by inhaling products containing it, such as paints, varnishes, or gasoline. Talk with your children about the dangers of sniffing chemicals.
Medical tests for exposure to ethylbenzene
Ethylbenzene is found in the blood, urine, breath, and some body tissues of exposed people. It is detected in these components through biomonitoring. Urine is most commonly tested to determine exposure to ethylbenzene. The test measures the presence of substances formed following an exposure to ethylbenzene. These substances are formed by the breakdown of ethylbenzene. You should have this test done within a few hours after exposure occurs because these substances leave the body very quickly. Although this test can prove your exposure to ethylbenzene, it cannot yet predict the kind of health effects that might develop from that exposure.
Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.