Health effects of tetryl


Tetryl is a synthetic substance that was used to make explosives, mostly during World War I and World War II. It is no longer manufactured or used in the United States. The chemical name for tetryl is N-methyl-N,2,4,6-tetranitroaniline. Other commonly used names are 2,4,6-trinitrophenyl-N-methylnitramine, nitramine, tetralite, and tetril. Stocks of tetryl are found in storage at military installations and are being destroyed by the Department of Defense. Tetryl was frequently manufactured as pellets or powder. Under certain manufacturing conditions, it could exist in the air as a dust. Tetryl is a yellow, crystal-like solid at room temperature. It dissolves slightly in water. It can also dissolve in other liquids, including benzene, alcohol, and acetone. At temperatures of 369°F (187°C) or higher, tetryl will explode. Tetryl has no odor, but some of its manufactured forms may have odors due to the presence of other chemicals. In addition, high concentrations of tetryl dust have an irritating effect on the nose that produces a sensation that might seem to be an odor.

Pathways for tetryl in the environment

Tetryl may be released to the air, water, and soil when old stores of the explosive are destroyed by exploding or burning. However, tetryl has not been measured in air during any of these activities. Tetryl that was manufactured or stored at military installations, or Army ammunition plants may still be present in the soil and water at or around these sites. Tetryl is not likely to evaporate into air from water or soil surfaces. However, tetryl may be present in air mixed with dust from these sites. Tetryl appears to break-down rapidly in some soils. Picric acid is one of the break down products of tetryl in soil. Tetryl probably does not easily travel from soil to groundwater. Erosion of soil from contaminated sites may release tetryl to nearby surface water. Once it is in the water, tetryl may dissolve or associate with small particles of suspended solids, sediments, or organic debris. Some of these particles will settle to the bottom. Tetryl breaks down rapidly in sunlit rivers and lakes, but much more slowly in groundwater. It is not known whether tetryl will build up in fish, plants, or land animals.

Exposure to tetryl

Most people are not exposed to tetryl because contamination is localized around military installations where it was manufactured, used, or stored. Tetryl can move through soil and enter underground water. If you live near one of these installations with tetryl contamination, you may be exposed to tetryl by drinking contaminated well water. You may also be exposed to tetryl by skin contact with contaminated soil or water. Workers who were previously involved in the processes of making, using, packing, or loading tetryl were probably exposed to tetryl by breathing contaminated dust and through skin contact. Workers currently involved in the clean-up, disposal, and destruction of tetryl may also be exposed by these routes. Tetryl has been found in soil and water at some military installations, such as Army ammunition plants, and in underground water at one site near a military installation.

Pathways for tetryl in the body

Tetryl can enter your body if you breathe it in the air, drink it in water, or get it on your skin. We do not know the extent to which tetryl enters your body by these routes. Based on limited information from animal studies, tetryl probably leaves your body in urine after being broken down to other substances.

Health effects of tetryl

Most of the information on the health effects of tetryl is from studies on workers in military facilities during World War I and World War II. These workers were involved in the production, use, packing, or loading of tetryl. The levels of tetryl in air at these facilities were often not measured. Many workers who breathed tetryl-laden dust complained of coughs, fatigue, headaches, eye irritation, lack of appetite, nosebleeds, nausea, and/or vomiting. Most workers who routinely handled tetryl powder and pellets in munitions factories developed a distinct yellow staining of the hands, neck, and hair. Workers with this staining were sometimes referred to as "canaries." Many workers who had skin contact with tetryl dust or compounds containing tetryl also developed skin rashes (dermatitis). The rashes ranged from mild to severe and symptoms often included reddening, itching, swelling, and peeling of skin. Most of these health effects usually developed within a few days to a few weeks after exposure to tetryl. Some workers were more sensitive to tetryl exposure and developed allergies to tetryl. These often included severe asthma-like reactions that sometimes required medical attention or hospitalization. Workers who developed allergies to tetryl had reactions within a few hours after being exposed again to tetryl. Many of these workers were moved to work areas where there was no tetryl. Little is known about the longer term health effects in workers exposed to tetryl.

There is no information on health effects in people exposed to drinking water contaminated with tetryl. Rabbits fed high doses of tetryl every day for 6 to 9 months developed degenerative lesions of the liver and kidney. Decreased blood-clotting capability and changes in the spleen were also noted. We do not know if tetryl causes cancer or birth defects, or if it affects reproduction in people or animals. The Department of Health and Human Services, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the Environmental Protection Agency have not classified the carcinogenicity of tetryl.

Medical tests for exposure to tetryl

During World War I and World War II, most workers who routinely handled tetryl powder and pellets in munitions factories developed a distinct yellow staining of the skin. Many workers also developed skin rashes. These workers were exposed to high concentrations of tetryl dust in the air and by direct contact with the explosives. There are no medical tests to show if you have been specifically exposed to tetryl. However, if the breakdown products of tetryl found in the urine of animals exposed to tetryl were also present in the urine of exposed people, these breakdown products could be used to indicate exposure to tetryl or similar substances. The symptoms caused by exposure to tetryl can also occur for many other reasons; therefore, they cannot be used as proof of tetryl 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.



(2008). Health effects of tetryl. Retrieved from


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