Hydrocarbon toxicity

Last updated: January 6, 2022

Summarytoggle arrow icon

Hydrocarbons are a large class of organic compounds composed solely of hydrogen and carbon, all of which can be toxic if inhaled or ingested. Hydrocarbons have a wide range of household and industrial applications, especially as fuels (e.g., gasoline), solvents (e.g., turpentine), and lubricants (e.g., mineral oil). Chlorinated and aromatic hydrocarbons have a particularly severe toxicity and their occurrence is generally restricted to industrial uses. At low doses, exposure to household hydrocarbons may manifest with coughing, nausea, vomiting, signs of hypoxia, signs of CNS depression, and other neurological symptoms such as agitation, hallucinations, and tremors. High doses can cause potentially fatal arrhythmias. Chronic exposure may cause rashes, peripheral neuropathy, chronic headaches, and cognitive impairment. Chlorinated and aromatic hydrocarbons may furthermore cause severe symptoms already in acute exposure and at relatively low doses, including chloracne (a hallmark of dioxin toxicity) and other dermatological manifestations (e.g., skin irritation, hirsutism, skin pigmentation), loss of consciousness, numbness, and decreased immune response. In chronic exposure or at high doses, they may have nephrotoxic, hepatotoxic, neurotoxic, carcinogenic, and teratogenic effects. Industrial accidents have led to severe effects in the general population including in Vietnam, via contamination of Agent Orange with TCDD and the contamination of rice bran oil in Kyusho, Japan, with PCB in 1968 (Yusho disease).

Overviewtoggle arrow icon

Halogenated hydrocarbons

  • Overview
    • Fluorinated or chlorinated hydrocarbons
    • From biomass burning or natural production by fungi/bacteria
    • CCl4: formerly widely used in fire extinguishers, refrigerants, dry-cleaning fluids, and propellants
  • Examples: chloroform, carbon tetrachloride

Polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (dioxins; PCDDs) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs)

Chloracne is a hallmark symptom of dioxin toxicity.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

  • Overview
    • Formerly used in coolants and insulators for transformers and electrical capacitors, hydraulic fluids, as plasticizers for paints and plastics, and as sealants for caulking
    • Manufacturing was banned in the US in 1979.
    • Very stable, lipophilic compounds that are absorbed via contaminated foods, mainly of animal origin (e.g., beef, dairy products, and chicken), or via environmental exposure, mainly as an occupational hazard involving inhalation or skin contact
    • PCBs are mainly released into the environment from waste (e.g., electrical transformers, PCB-containing consumer products)
    • Classified as probable human carcinogens (group 2A carcinogens)
  • Examples: 3,3′,4,4′-tetrachlorobiphenyl, 3,3′,4,4′,5-pentachlorobiphenyl [2]
  • Clinical features

Chlorinated alkenes

  • Overview
    • Used in the production of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics , as refrigerants, and in the organic synthesis for adhesives
    • Known to be toxic to aquatic life and classified as human carcinogens (group 1A carcinogens)
    • Some substances (e.g., trichloroethylene) have high vapor pressure and emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) [5]
      • Can be emitted from solids and liquids
      • Pose short- and long-term health risks (see below)
      • Household items that emit VOCs include paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, office equipment, and glues.
  • Examples: chloroethylene (vinyl chloride), trichloroethylene, trichloroethylene , tetrachloroethylene, methylene chloride
  • Clinical features [6]
  • Diagnostics: detection of thiodiglycolic acid in urine

Aromatic hydrocarbons

  • Overview
    • Hydrocarbons that contain at least one aromatic ring
    • Found in solvents, glues, nail polishes, cigarette smoke, car emissions, paints
  • Examples
    • Benzene
    • Benzene derivatives: a hydrocarbon (e.g., xylene, toluene), amine group (e.g., aniline), or a nitro-compound (e.g., nitrobenzene) attached to a benzene ring

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons

Chlorinated aromatic compounds

  • Overview
    • Used in the production of herbicides, pesticides, and rubber
    • Classified as group D carcinogen (i.e., not classifiable as to human carcinogenicity due to limited data)
    • No information available regarding developmental and/or reproductive effects
  • Examples: chlorobenzene, chlorophenol
  • Clinical features [10]

Aliphatic hydrocarbons

  • Overview
    • Hydrocarbons joined in a linear chain or by a non-aromatic ring
    • Found in gasoline or kerosene (solvents, paraffin wax, lighter fluid, furniture polishes, and lamp oil)
  • Examples: n-hexane, heptane, methane, ethane, propane, butane, octane

Terpene hydrocarbons

  • Overview
    • Hydrocarbons containing isoprene
    • Used in the rubber, painting, or welding industries (in form of pine/turpentine oil)
  • Example: turpentine

Referencestoggle arrow icon

  1. Occupational chloracne. . Accessed: August 26, 2021.
  2. Table of PCB Species by Congener Number. . Accessed: August 26, 2021.
  3. Onozuka D, Nakamura Y, Tsuji G, Furue M. Mortality in Yusho patients exposed to polychlorinated biphenyls and polychlorinated dibenzofurans: a 50-year retrospective cohort study. Environmental Health. 2020; 19 (1).doi: 10.1186/s12940-020-00680-0 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  4. Learn about polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). . Accessed: August 26, 2021.
  5. What are volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?. . Accessed: December 15, 2021.
  6. Vinyl Chloride. Updated: December 28, 2018. Accessed: August 26, 2021.
  7. Boström C-E, Gerde P, Hanberg A, et al. Cancer risk assessment, indicators, and guidelines for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the ambient air.. Environ Health Perspect. 2002; 110 (suppl 3): p.451-488.doi: 10.1289/ehp.110-1241197 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  8. Nadia Benmoussa, John-David Rebibo, Patrick Conan, Philippe Charlier. Chimney-sweeps' cancer—early proof of environmentally driven tumourigenicity. Lancet Oncol. 2019; 20 (3): p.338.doi: 10.1016/s1470-2045(19)30106-8 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  9. Cancer in Illinois Resources - Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). . Accessed: August 26, 2021.
  10. Chlorobenzene. . Accessed: August 26, 2021.

Icon of a lock3 free articles remaining

You have 3 free member-only articles left this month. Sign up and get unlimited access.
 Evidence-based content, created and peer-reviewed by physicians. Read the disclaimer