Health effects of xylene


In this report, the terms xylene, xylenes, and total xylenes will be used interchangeably. There are three forms of xylene in which the methyl groups vary on the benzene ring: meta-xylene, ortho-xylene, and para-xylene (m-, o-, and p-xylene). These different forms are referred to as isomers. The term total xylenes refers to all three isomers of xylene (m-, o-, and p-xylene). Mixed xylene is a mixture of the three isomers and usually also contains 6-15% ethylbenzene. Xylene is also known as xylol or dimethylbenzene. Xylene is primarily a synthetic chemical. Chemical industries produce xylene from petroleum. Xylene also occurs naturally in petroleum and coal tar and is formed during forest fires, to a small extent. It is a colorless, flammable liquid with a sweet odor.

Xylene is one of the top 30 chemicals produced in the United States in terms of volume. It is primarily used as a solvent (a liquid that can dissolve other substances) in the printing, rubber, and leather industries. Along with other solvents, xylene is also widely used as a cleaning agent, a thinner for paint, and in varnishes. Xylene is used, to a lesser extent, as a material in the chemical, plastics, and synthetic fiber industries and as an ingredient in the coating of fabrics and papers. Isomers of xylene are used in the manufacture of certain polymers (chemical compounds), such as plastics. Xylene is found in small amounts in airplane fuel and gasoline.

Xylene evaporates and burns easily. Xylene does not mix well with water; however, it does mix with alcohol and many other chemicals. Most people begin to smell xylene in air at 0.08-3.7 parts of xylene per million parts of air (ppm) and in water at 0.53-1.1 ppm.

Pathways for xylene in the environment

Xylene is a liquid, and it can leak into soil, surface water (creeks, streams, rivers), or groundwater. Xylene can enter the environment when it is made, packaged, shipped, or used. Most xylene that is accidentally released evaporates into the air, although some is released into rivers or lakes. Xylene can also enter soil, water, or air in large amounts after an accidental spill or as a result of an environmental leak during storage or burial at a waste site.

Since xylene evaporates easily, most xylene that gets into soil and water (if not trapped underground) is expected to go into the air where it is broken down by sunlight into other less harmful chemicals within a couple of days. For this reason, xylene is rarely found in high concentrations in topsoil or surface water (river, creeks) unless there has been a recent spill or continuing source of contamination.

Any xylene that does not evaporate quickly from soil or water is broken down by small organisms. Only very small amounts are taken up by plants, fish, and birds.

Xylene below the soil surface may travel down through the soil and enter underground water (groundwater). Xylene may remain in groundwater for several months before it is finally broken down by small organisms. If a large amount of xylene enters soil from an accidental spill, a hazardous waste site, or a landfill, it may travel through the soil and contaminate drinking water wells.

Exposure to xylene

Xylene is primarily released from industrial sources, in automobile exhaust, and during its use as a solvent. Hazardous waste disposal sites and spills of xylene into the environment are also possible sources of exposure. You are most likely to be exposed to xylene by breathing it in contaminated air. Typical levels of xylene measured in outdoor air in the United States range from 1 to 30 parts of xylene per billion parts of air (a part per billion [ppb] is one thousandth of a part per million [ppm]; one ppm equals 1,000 ppb). Typical levels of xylene measured in indoor air range from 1 to 10 ppb.

Xylene is sometimes released into water and soil as a result of the use, storage, and transport of petroleum products. Little information exists about the amount of xylene in surface water and soil. However, levels of xylene in contaminated groundwater have been reported to be as high as 10,000 ppb.

You may be exposed to xylene by drinking or eating xylene-contaminated water or food. Xylene is not commonly found in drinking water. When it is, the levels of xylene are typically below 2 ppb. Xylene has been found in many types of foods at levels ranging from 1 to 100 ppb.

You may also come in contact with xylene from a variety of consumer products, including gasoline, paint, varnish, shellac, rust preventives, and cigarette smoke. Breathing vapors from these types of products can expose you to xylene. In some cases, indoor levels of xylene can be higher than outdoor levels, especially in buildings with poor ventilation. Skin contact with products containing xylene, such as solvents, lacquers, paint thinners and removers, and pesticides may also expose you to xylene.

Besides painters and paint industry workers, others who may be exposed to xylene include biomedical laboratory workers, distillers of xylene, wood-processing plant workers, automobile garage workers, metal workers, and furniture refinishers. Workers who routinely come in contact with xylene-containing solvents in the workplace are the population most likely to be exposed to high levels of xylene.

Pathways for xylene in the body

Xylene is most likely to enter your body when you breathe xylene vapors. Less often, xylene enters the body through the skin following direct contact. It is rapidly absorbed by your lungs after you breathe air containing it. Exposure to xylene may also take place if you eat or drink xylene-contaminated food or water. The amount of xylene retained ranges from 50 to 75% of the amount of xylene that you inhale. Physical exercise increases the amount of xylene absorbed by the lungs. Absorption of xylene after eating food or drinking water containing it is both rapid and complete. Absorption of xylene through the skin also occurs rapidly following direct contact with xylene. Absorption of xylene vapor through the skin is estimated to be only 12% of the amount absorbed by the lungs. At hazardous waste sites, the most likely ways you can be exposed are: breathing xylene vapors, drinking well water contaminated with xylene, and direct contact of the skin with xylene. Xylene passes into the blood soon after entering the body.

In people and laboratory animals, xylene is broken down into other chemicals especially in the liver. This process changes most of the xylene that is breathed in or swallowed into a different form that is more water soluble and is rapidly removed from the body in urine. Some unchanged xylene also leaves in the breath from the lungs within a few seconds after xylene is absorbed. One of the breakdown products of xylene, methylbenzaldehyde, is harmful to the lungs of some animals. This chemical has not been found in people exposed to xylene. Small amounts of breakdown products of xylene have appeared in the urine of people as soon as 2 hours after breathing air containing xylene. Usually, most of the xylene that is taken in leaves the body within 18 hours after exposure ends. Storage of xylene in fat or muscle may prolong the time needed for xylene to leave the body.

Health effects of xylene

Scientists use many tests to protect the public from harmful effects of toxic chemicals and to find ways for treating persons who have been harmed.

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 health effects such 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.

Scientists have found that the three forms of xylene and xylene mixtures have very similar effects on health. No health effects have been noted at the background levels that people are exposed to on a daily basis. Short-term exposure of people to high levels of xylene can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, and throat; difficulty in breathing; impaired function of the lungs; delayed response to a visual stimulus; impaired memory; stomach discomfort; and possible changes in the liver and kidneys. Both short- and long-term exposure to high concentrations of xylene can also cause a number of effects on the nervous system, such as headaches, lack of muscle coordination, dizziness, confusion, and changes in one's sense of balance.

People exposed to very high levels of xylene for a short period of time have died. Most of the information on health effects in humans exposed for long periods of time is from studies of workers employed in industries that make or use xylene. Those workers were exposed to levels of xylene in air far greater than the levels normally encountered by the general population. Many of the effects seen after their exposure to xylene could have been caused by exposure to other chemicals that were in the air with xylene.

Results of studies in animals indicate that large amounts of xylene can cause changes in the liver and harmful effects on the kidneys, lungs, heart, and nervous system. Short-term exposure to very high concentrations of xylene causes death in animals, as well as muscular spasms, incoordination, hearing loss, changes in behavior, changes in organ weights, and changes in enzyme activity. Long-term exposure of animals to low concentrations of xylene has not been well studied, but there is some information that long-term exposure of animals can cause harmful effects on the kidney (with oral exposure) or on the nervous system (with inhalation exposure).

Information from animal studies is not adequate to determine whether or not xylene causes cancer in humans. Both the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have found that there is insufficient information to determine whether or not xylene is carcinogenic and consider xylene not classifiable as to its human carcinogenicity.

Exposure of pregnant women to high levels of xylene may cause harmful effects to the fetus. Studies of unborn animals indicate that high concentrations of xylene may cause increased numbers of deaths, decreased weight, skeletal changes, and delayed skeletal development. In many instances, these same high concentrations also cause damage to the mothers. The higher the exposure and the longer the exposure to xylene, the greater the chance of harmful health effects.

Health effects in children

This section discusses potential health effects in humans from exposures during the period from conception to maturity at 18 years of age.

Children might be exposed to xylenes by inhaling fumes of gasoline or of paints or other products containing xylene as a solvent. Although no studies are available, it is likely that exposed children would be similar to adults in the uptake of xylenes by breathing or swallowing or through the skin.

The effects of xylenes have not been studied in children, but it is likely that they would be similar to those seen in exposed adults. Although there is no direct evidence, children may be more sensitive to acute inhalation exposure than adults because their narrower airways would be more sensitive to swelling effects (a reason that women may be more sensitive than men).

There are no conclusive studies showing developmental effects of xylenes in humans. However, animal studies showed that xylene absorbed by the mother can cross the placenta and reach the fetus. The unborn animals may have reduced body weight and delayed bone mineralization when the mother is exposed to toxic levels of xylene. Some animal studies have shown that newborn babies that were exposed to xylene during pregnancy have problems after birth with motor coordination and spatial navigation. In general, these developmental effects occur at exposure levels much higher than those typically seen in the background environment, levels high enough to also harm the mother.

Reducing risk of exposure to xylene

If your doctor finds that you have been exposed to substantial amounts of xylene, ask whether your children might also have been exposed. Your doctor might need to ask your state health department to investigate.

Exposure to xylene as solvents (in paints or gasoline) can be reduced if the products are used with adequate ventilation and if they are stored out of the reach of small children.

Sometimes older children sniff household chemicals in attempt to get high. Talk with your children about the dangers of sniffing xylene.

If products containing xylene are spilled on the skin, then the excess should be wiped off and the area cleaned with soap and water.

Medical tests for exposure to xylene

Medical tests are available to determine if you have been exposed to xylene at higher-than-normal levels. Confirmation of xylene exposure is determined by measuring some of its breakdown products eliminated from the body in the urine. These urinary measurements will determine if you have been exposed to xylene. There is a high degree of agreement between exposure to xylene and the levels of xylene breakdown products in the urine. However, a urine sample must be provided very soon (within hours) after exposure ends because xylene quickly leaves the body. Alcohol or aspirin may produce false positive test results. Medical tests have been developed to measure levels of xylene in blood by the National Center for Environmental Health and in exhaled breath by EPA's Total Exposure Assessment Methodology. These tests may be available in certain doctors' offices. Available tests can only indicate exposure to xylene; they cannot be used to predict which health effects, if any, will develop.

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 xylene. Retrieved from


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