Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.


Acrylonitrile is a clear liquid that smells like onions or garlic. It is man-made as it does not naturally occur on Earth. It is used to create other materials, most commonly acrylic fibers in clothing and carpeting. Acrylonitrile can enter the environment from industrial sites that produce it and waste sites where it is disposed of. Because it dissolves easily in water and readily evaporates, it can enter the water, air, and soil. Although acrylonitrile breaks down in water and soil, people can still be exposed to it if they live or work near factories that use it. They can also be exposed to it through acrylonitrile-based plastic products and acrylic fibers. In addition to industrial sources of exposure, acrylonitrile is also found in tobacco smoke and vehicle exhaust.

Inhaling airborne acrylonitrile can cause respiratory, skin, and eye irritation. It can also cause dizziness, headaches, weakness, impaired judgment, and, in extreme cases, convulsions. Exposure of acrylonitrile to the skin can cause burns and blisters, and repeated exposure can cause brain and liver damage. Studies on laboratory animals have also found that inhalation or oral exposure can cause low birth weights and birth defects.

The US Department of Health and Human Services, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have all determined that acrylonitrile probably causes cancer in humans. This is likely to occur through DNA damage. Research has found that people who work at facilities that use acrylonitrile have higher rates of lung cancer than the general population. Acrylonitrile is also one of the chemicals in tobacco smoke that is most associated with respiratory cancers. These findings demonstrate that acrylonitrile is dangerous enough that people need to be protected from it, especially if they live or work near facilities that use or dispose of it.

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