Health effects of Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons (TPH)


Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons (TPH) is a term used to describe a broad family of several hundred chemical compounds that originally come from crude oil. In this sense, TPH is really a mixture of chemicals. They are called hydrocarbons because almost all of them are made entirely from hydrogen and carbon. Crude oils can vary in how much of each chemical they contain, and so can the petroleum products that are made from crude oils. Most products that contain TPH will burn. Some are clear or light-colored liquids that evaporate easily, and others are thick, dark liquids or semi-solids that do not evaporate. Many of these products have characteristic gasoline, kerosene, or oily odors. Because modern society uses so many petroleum-based products (for example, gasoline, kerosene, fuel oil, mineral oil, and asphalt), contamination of the environment by them is potentially widespread. Contamination caused by petroleum products will contain a variety of these hydrocarbons. Because there are so many, it is not usually practical to measure each one individually. However, it is useful to measure the total amount of all hydrocarbons found together in a particular sample of soil, water, or air.

The amount of TPH found in a sample is useful as a general indicator of petroleum contamination at that site. However, this TPH measurement or number tells us little about how the particular petroleum hydrocarbons in the sample may affect people, animals, and plants. By dividing TPH into groups of petroleum hydrocarbons that act alike in the soil or water, scientists can better know what happens to them. These groups are called petroleum hydrocarbon fractions. Each fraction contains many individual compounds.

Exposure to TPH

Everyone is exposed to TPH from many sources, including gasoline fumes at the pump, spilled crankcase oil on pavement, chemicals used at home or work, or certain pesticides that contain TPH components as solvents. A small amount of lighter TPH components are found in the general air you breathe. Many occupations involve extracting and refining crude oil, manufacturing petroleum and other hydrocarbon products, or using these products. If you work with petroleum products, you may be exposed to higher levels of TPH through skin contact or by breathing contaminated air. If TPH has leaked from underground storage tanks and entered the groundwater, you may drink water from a well contaminated with TPH. You may breathe in some of the TPH compounds evaporating from a spill or leak if you are in the area where an accidental release has occurred. Children may be exposed by playing in soil contaminated with TPH.

Pathways for TPH in the environment

TPH is released to the environment through accidents, as releases from industries, or as byproducts from commercial or private uses. When TPH is released directly to water through spills or leaks, certain TPH fractions will float in water and form thin surface films. Other heavier fractions will accumulate in the sediment at the bottom of the water, which may affect bottom-feeding fish and organisms. Some organisms found in the water (primarily bacteria and fungi) may break down some of the TPH fractions. TPH released to the soil may move through the soil to the groundwater. Individual compounds may then separate from the original mixture, depending on the chemical properties of the compound. Some of these compounds will evaporate into the air and others will dissolve into the groundwater and move away from the release area. Other compounds will attach to particles in the soil and may stay in the soil for a long period of time, while others will be broken down by organisms found in the soil.

Pathways for TPH in the body

TPH can enter and leave your body when you breathe it in air; swallow it in water, food, or soil; or touch it. Most components of TPH will enter your bloodstream rapidly when you breathe them as a vapor or mist or when you swallow them. Some TPH compounds are widely distributed by the blood throughout your body and quickly break down into less harmful chemicals. Others may break down into more harmful chemicals. Other TPH compounds are slowly distributed by the blood to other parts of the body and do not readily break down. When you touch TPH compounds, they are absorbed more slowly and to a lesser extent than when you breathe or swallow them. Most TPH compounds leave your body through urine or when you exhale air containing the compounds.

Health effects of TPH

Health effects from exposure to TPH depend on many factors. These include the types of chemical compounds in the TPH, how long the exposure lasts, and the amount of the chemicals contacted. Very little is known about the toxicity of many TPH compounds. Until more information is available, information about health effects of TPH must be based on specific compounds or petroleum products that have been studied.

The compounds in different TPH fractions affect the body in different ways. Some of the TPH compounds, particularly the smaller compounds such as benzene, toluene, and xylene (which are present in gasoline), can affect the human central nervous system. If exposures are high enough, death can occur. Breathing toluene at concentrations greater than 100 parts per million (100 ppm) for more than several hours can cause fatigue, headache, nausea, and drowsiness. When exposure is stopped, the symptoms will go away. However, if someone is exposed for a long time, permanent damage to the central nervous system can occur. One TPH compound (n-hexane) can affect the central nervous system in a different way, causing a nerve disorder called "peripheral neuropathy" characterized by numbness in the feet and legs and, in severe cases, paralysis. This has occurred in workers exposed to 500–2,500 ppm of n-hexane in the air. Swallowing some petroleum products such as gasoline and kerosene causes irritation of the throat and stomach, central nervous system depression, difficulty breathing, and pneumonia from breathing liquid into the lungs. The compounds in some TPH fractions can also affect the blood, immune system, liver, spleen, kidneys, developing fetus, and lungs. Certain TPH compounds can be irritating to the skin and eyes. Other TPH compounds, such as some mineral oils, are not very toxic and are used in foods.

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 alternatives|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).

Animal studies have shown effects on the lungs, central nervous system, liver, kidney, developing fetus, and reproductive system from exposure to TPH compounds, generally after breathing or swallowing the compounds.

One TPH compound (benzene) has been shown to cause cancer (leukemia) in people. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that benzene is carcinogenic to humans (Group 1 classification). Some other TPH compounds or petroleum products, such as benzo(a)pyrene and gasoline, are considered to be probably and possibly carcinogenic to humans (IARC Groups 2A and 2B, respectively) based on cancer studies in people and animals. Most of the other TPH compounds and products are considered not classifiable (Group 3) by IARC.

Medical tests for TPH

There is no medical test that shows if you have been exposed to TPH. However, there are methods to determine if you have been exposed to some TPH compounds, fractions, or petroleum products. For example, a breakdown product of n-hexane can be measured in the urine. Benzene can be measured in exhaled air and a metabolite of benzene, phenol, can be measured in urine to show exposure to gasoline or to the TPH fraction containing benzene. Exposure to kerosene or gasoline can be determined by its smell on the breath or clothing. Methods also exist to determine if you have been exposed to other TPH compounds. For example, ethylbenzene can be measured in the blood, urine, breath, and some body tissues of exposed people. However, many of these tests may not be available in your doctor's office.

If you have TPH compounds in your body, they could be from exposure to many different products, and tests cannot determine exactly what you were exposed to. Tests are useful if you suspect that you were exposed to a particular product or waste that contains TPH. For information on tests for exposure to specific TPH compounds, see the ATSDR toxicological profiles for benzene, toluene, total TPHsylenes, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and hexane.

Further Reading

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.



(2008). Health effects of Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons (TPH). Retrieved from


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