Gasoline is a highly toxic substance composed mainly of hydrocarbons which are toxic to varying degrees. Typically, gasoline contains around 150 chemicals, the most toxic of these being benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene. These are commonly known as BTEX compounds are exceedingly toxic. The EPA and OSHA impose and monitor strict regulations to reduce the instances of exposure to the environment or to humans.
Exposure can occur in several ways. Environmentally, exposure to gasoline can be caused by leaking underground storage tanks (USTs) or above ground storage tanks (ASTs), improperly stored gasoline, or improperly secured storage containers.
Gasoline exposure in humans occurs mainly by inhalation, ingestion, and dermal contact.
- Inhalation – Inhalation exposure most often occurs when gasoline is used or dispensed in an improperly ventilated area. Some people purposely inhale gasoline to get high. “Huffing” is the process of intentionally exposing oneself to the toxic vapors of gasoline.
- Ingestion – Ingestion occurs when a person unknowingly consumes tainted water. Food that has been cooked with tainted water will also cause unhealthy gas exposure levels.
- Dermal Contact – Gasoline exposure can occur through skin contact as well. The chemicals in gasoline are readily absorbed through the skin, so prolonged skin exposure will result in an unhealthy level of exposure.
Gasoline Health Risks
Exposure to gasoline can result in serious health problems, even death in certain cases. Most exposure is only serious if it occurs in large doses, over a long period of time, or a combination of these. Generally, the best course of action with gasoline is to handle it carefully and limit the amount of direct contact to as little as possible.
Long Term Health Risks of Exposure
- The Skin – Prolonged skin contact can dry the skin, causing cracking, irritation, and dermatitis. Although rare, allergic reactions have been reported.
- The Blood – Gasoline tanker crewmen and painters have had adverse blood effects due to prolonged and repeated gasoline exposure.
- The Peripheral Nervous System – Gasoline contains a variety of paraffins such as n-hexane. Prolonged, repeated exposure to n-hexane is known to cause irreversible damage to the peripheral nervous system.
- The Neurological System – Long term exposure to gasoline affects many neurological functions. In fact, effects on memory, intellectual capacity, and psychomotor and learning abilities were seen in gas station attendants who were exposed to gasoline vapors regularly for more than 5 years.
Unconfirmed Health Risks
Several studies have shown other, unconfirmed severe health risks. In some studies the information was too vague, while other studies were performed on animals and therefore cannot be directly correlated to humans. Still, these studies show that gasoline’s toxic properties are intensely dangerous.
Unconfirmed Health Risks Include:
- Reproductive and menstrual abnormalities as well as birth defects in women subjected to prolonged exposure to gasoline.
- Certain cancers were found in rats subjected to repeated, prolonged exposure.
The best way to limit the impact of gasoline on your health is to limit or eliminate exposure. When dispensing or using gasoline, follow all appropriate safety measures.
- Never use gasoline in an enclosed area.
- Limit or eliminate skin contact. If contact occurs, wash the skin immediately.
- Protect your eyes! If eye contact occurs, flush with copious amounts of water.
Following good safety practices is extremely important when handling gasoline. Gasoline exposure can impact a variety of bodily functions, organs, and processes. Gasoline is extremely toxic and should be given the same care as any other hazardous substance.