Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, Industrial Solvents (TCE, TCA, PCE, DICE) and Other Organic Solvents

B Windham, Ed, DAMS Intl


Volatile organic compounds include various types of chemicals found in gasoline, solvents, benzene, formaldehyde, synthetic musk scents, and fragrance ingredients. They are widespread in the environment because of evaporation and the incomplete combustion of fuels. (4) They can accumulate in various foodstuffs and may also form during the processing and preparation of food. They can seep into food from its packaging materials. VOCs have been found in microwaved popcorn and this has been raised as a health concern for consumers and production workers alike. Bronchiolitis obliterans is an inflammatory condition affecting the lungs’ smallest airways. One of the causes is the inhalation of chemical fumes such as volatile organic compounds. (4) Some of the effects of hydrocarbon toxicity include chronic or acute lung damage, coma, seizures, irregular heart rhythms, damage to the kidneys or liver, cardiovascular damage, immune system damage, cataracts, etc. (1,2) . Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are ubiquitous environmental pollutants generated primarily during the  incomplete combustion  of organic materials (e.g. coal, oil, petrol, and wood). Many PAHs have toxic, endocrine-disrupting, mutagenic, and/or carcinogenic properties.  (2) Many polycyclic aromatic Hydrocarbons have toxic, mutagenic, neuroinflammatory, and/or carcinogenic properties. (2,36,45)


Because the chemical must pass through a number of cell membranes before it can enter the blood, the ability of the chemical to cross these lipid-rich membranes determines whether it will be absorbed, and that ability depends on the chemical’s lipid solubility. Lipophilic hydrocarbons such as hexane, toluene, aromatics, cycloalkanes, and terpenes accumulate in the membrane lipid bilayer, affecting the structural and functional properties of these membranes. (44) As a result of accumulated hydrocarbon molecules, the membrane loses its integrity, and an increase in permeability to protons and ions has been observed in several instances. Consequently, dissipation of the pro ton motive force and impairment of intracellular pH homeostasis occur. In order for a poison to produce toxicity, a sufficient quantity of that chemical must be absorbed into the body.

Many studies have associated environmental exposure to chemicals with neurological impairments (NIs) including neuropathies, cognitive, motor and sensory impairments; neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs) including autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); neurodegenerative diseases (NDGs) including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). (45) The environmental chemicals shown to induce all these diseases include persistent organic pollutants (POPs), the plastic exudates bisphenol A and phthalates, low molecular weight hydrocarbons (LMWHCs) and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). It is reported here that though these chemicals differ widely in their chemical properties, reactivities and known points of attack in humans, a common link does exist between them. All are lipophilic species found in serum and they promote the sequential absorption of otherwise non-absorbed toxic hydrophilic species causing these diseases. 

VOCs have been found to interfere with cellular membranes and cause diverse neurological effects. (5,45) Studies have also found a significant association between volatile organic compound exposure and the increased risk of developing an autoimmune problem. (5b) These chemicals alter cell proliferation and tissue-specific function. The pathological effects are more pronounced if exposure occurs over a longer period of time. Chronic exposure results in deposits of the chemicals in organs and then exaggerated immune system responses.

It is extremely difficult to avoid VOCs in our food because almost every food product that is available today is contained in, and protected by, some form of packaging. The trick is to avoid packaging. Try to purchase fresh produce in paper bags rather than plastic. Avoid any kind of styrofoam or plastic and make sure you never heat food in these. Use glass or ceramic containers in the microwave. Avoid take-out food in plastic-lined boxes — or better yet, avoid fast food altogether

One type of hydrocarbon is organic solvents. Common organic solvents are classified as alcohols, aromatic hydrocarbons, chlorinated hydrocarbons, aliphatic hydrocarbons, esters, glycol ethers, and ketones . Organic solvents include the aliphatic hydrocarbons (pentanes, hexanes, octanes), aromatic hydrocarbons (benzene, toluene, xylene, styrene), chlorinated derivatives (TCE, PCE, 1,1,1-trichloroethane), and glycol ethers (ethylene glycol monoethyl ether). There is strong evidence that all are reproductive or developmental toxins (30) and increase the rate of spontaneous abortions for exposed women by a factor of 2 to 4 times (11). Some common solvents used in the industrial painting industry include denatured ethanol, iso-propanol, N-butanol, xylene and toluene, chlorinated hydrocarbons, mineral spirits, VM&P naptha, Esters, methyl ethyl ketone, methyl isobutyl ketone. Adverse health effects of Organic Solvents range from skin and lung irritation to the depression of the central nervous system.  The depression of the central nervous system cases include euphoria, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, impairment of judgement, loss of coordination, coma, and even death.  Chronic long term exposure of organic solvents can cause damage to the brain, liver, kidneys, heart, lungs, etc. Some are endocrine-disrupting, mutagenic and carcinogenic (3). Examples of the health effects of specific organic solvents include:

§   Alcohols- high concentrations can cause intoxication, and possible liver and kidney damage.

§   Aromatic hydrocarbons, such as xylene and toluene can cause lung irritation and act as a strong depressant to the central nervous system. Ketones, such as methyl ethyl ketone depress the central nervous system, and can irritate and damage the upper respiratory tract.


There are three primary organizations that provide exposure limits for organic solvents, including the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH).


Women exposed to organic solvents also have been found to have deceased fertility (17), increased rate of preclampsia (18), and to be more than 10 times as likely to deliver a child with a major birth defect (30). Wives of men exposed to organic solvents also appear to have slightly higher rates of spontaneous abortions (12), increased risk of low birth-weight babies (13), and birth defects (14). A review of studies by NIOSH/CDC found that organic solvents have caused serious adverse health effects to exposed workers (32), including peripheral nerve damage, motor, and neurobehavioral effects such as fatigability, irritability, memory impairment, depression, decreased concentration and learning ability, multiple chemical sensitivity (35-39,45), etc.  Animal studies also support these assessments.

2. Organic solvents in tap water and sewage effluent have been found to cause central nervous system impairment (9). Inhalation and skin exposure were found to offer as much body exposure as ingestion, so ingestion alone is not the only exposure source to consider (19). Workers in wastewater treatment plants who had the greatest exposure to volatile organic solvents had the most central nervous system effects.

Organic solvents have been found to have significant correlations with birth defects, including cleft palate, cardiovascular malformations, spina bifida, deafness, and central nervous system defects (16,30). Organic solvents and formaldehyde have also been found to be factors in neurologic diseases and multiple chemical sensitivities (31,35-39).

3. An Arizona study found 2.5 times more heart defects in babies born to people drinking water from trichloroethylene (TCE) contaminated wells at home or work than to unexposed individuals (15). Animal studies have also shown TCE to cause birth defects (41). A study of families drinking water contaminated with TCE in Woburn, Mass. found higher rates of leukemia and birth defects than normal (42). Children drinking the water were also found to have high rates of urinary tract and lung disease. Studies have linked TCE to cancer as well as heart, respiratory, and nervous system disorders (43).

4. Families using wells contaminated with TCA (1,1,1-trichloroethane) in Santa Clara County, California, experienced a doubling of the misarrange rate and a tripling of the birth defect rate. Heart defects were the largest category of birth defects found. This is consistent with past animal studies (6a).

5. There is a significant positive correlation between the presence of detectable 1-2 dichloroethane in drinking water and the rate of colon and rectal cancer (6b).

6. Between 1980 and 1982, the rate of occupational illness among semiconductor workers in California was 300% higher than for manufacturing in general (6c).

7. Children whose father was exposed to chlorinated solvents or Methyl Ethyl Ketone during pregnancy or early childhood were at least 2.2 times more likely to develop childhood leukemia (7). Parental exposure to gasoline/benzene has also been found to be significantly associated with childhood leukemia (20).

8. Perchloroethylene, the solvent most used in dry-cleaning, has been shown to cause cancer of the kidney and liver in animal studies, as well as leukemia. Studies in the U.S. and Europe of people working in dry cleaning facilities have found high levels of breast and liver cancer. Perchloroethylene (PCE) has been found to be associated with reduced fertility (23) and increased spontaneous abortions (24). Studies of women working with or commonly exposed to PCE have high levels in their breast milk (25). Buildings next door to or over dry cleaning facilities have been found to have very high levels of perchloroethylene, with high levels found in foods in neighboring grocery stores (8). Over a thousand public and private wells have been contaminated by perchloroethylene in Florida.

9. Parental exposure to organic solvents including gasoline, methyl-ethyl-ketone, TCE, freon have been found to be significantly associated with childhood brain tumors (21). Studies of parental exposure to organic solvents also consistently show elevated risk of cancers of the urinary tract (22).

10. Women exposed to toluene have been found to have very high rates of spontaneous abortions, 2 to 9 times normal rates (26) and higher birth defect rates (27). Hormonal changes in men and women have also been observed.

Xylene has also been found to associated with reproductive problems, spontaneous abortions, and birth defects (28)

11. Glycol Ethers have been found to lower male sperm counts and cause increased risk of spontaneous abortions (29). In a study of male fertility, men with poorer sperm quality were significantly more likely to have been exposed to organic solvents compared to men with normal sperm quality (33).

12.  Volatile organic chemicals and organic solvents have been documented to cause multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) and sick building syndrome (35-40).  Organic solvents have been found to be TRPV1 agonists, which increases NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) activity.  NMDA activity produces increases nitric oxide and increases the related oxidant product ONOO-, which act to lower mitochondrial function and thus adenosine triphosphate (ATP) generation. This has been documented to cause MCS and chronic fatigue. Chlorine, carbon monoxide, and many other chemicals have been found to cause similar conditions. 


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''Chronic animal studies with a limited number of organic solvents 

support the evidence for peripheral neuropathy and mild toxic 

encephalopathy in solvent-exposed workers. 

''Epidemiologic studies of various groups of solvent-exposed workers 

have demonstrated statistically significant chronic changes in 

peripheral nerve function (sensory and motor nerve onduction velocities 

and electromyographic abnormalities) that persisted for months to years 

following cessation of exposure. Epidemiologic studies have also shown 

statistically significant increases in neurobehavioral effects in 

workers chronically exposed to organic solvents. These effects include 

disorders characterized by reversible subjective symptoms (fatigability, 

irritability, and memory impairment), sustained changes in personality 

or mood (emotional instability and diminished impulse control and 

motivation), and impaired intellectual function (decreased concentration 

ability, memory, and learning ability). Among organic solvent abusers, 

the most severe disorders reported are characterized by irreversible 

deterioration in intellect and memory (dementia) accompanied by 

structural CNS damage...'' http://ncchem.com/niosh.htm 


Solvent; intermediate for dyes & org synth; insecticides; aviation fuel 

m-Xylene is used in the manufacturing of polyester and alkyl resins. 

CHEM INTERMEDIATE for Isophthalic acid & M-Toluic acid chem; 

intermediate for  isophthalonitrile ;

Chem intermediate for org  chems -GE,  Xylidenes  (non-USA USE)

Xylene has also been found in ground -tap water, where tested. 


For background on other chemicals, see: