Toxic Tuesdays

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


Xylene or xylenes (used interchangeably) is a colorless, sweet-smelling chemical occurring naturally in petroleum, coal and wood tar. Xylene occurs in three forms – m-xylene, o-xylene, and p-xylene – and together they are referred to as xylenes. Like toluene, which was the subject of the previous Toxic Tuesday, xylene is an aromatic hydrocarbon that is used widely as a solvent in the printing, rubber, paint and leather industries. It is also commonly found as a solvent in pesticide products.

Xylene, being easily dissolvable in fats, also has similar health effects to toluene. Various central nervous system (CNS) problems are associated with exposure to xylenes in the air at levels as low as 100 parts per million (ppm) including headaches, dizziness, ataxia, drowsiness, excitement and tremors. At slightly more elevated levels (~200ppm), xylene can irritate the lungs, cause shortness of breath, and can cause pulmonary edema, a condition that results in excess buildup of fluid in the lungs. At larger concentrations, xylene may lead to liver and kidney damage and even cause cardiac abnormalities.

Given that xylene is a volatile organic compound (VOC), the main route of exposure is through inhalation. Automobile exhaust is one of the main sources of exposure. Hazardous waste disposal sites are another major route of exposure, given that xylene has been found in significant levels in over half of all Superfund sites. Finally, contaminated drinking water can be another significant route of exposure even if the water is not ingested.

This was the case in the village of Amesville, OH. CHEJ worked with some of the town residents to analyze the testing results of their drinking water supply after the inside of the town’s water storage tank was painted with an epoxy resin coat. Low but noticeable levels of xylene and other VOCs were found in their water supply. Despite being below the threshold of EPA’s federal drinking water standards, the constant exposure to xylene through ingestion, inhalation (e.g., showers), and dermal contact was a cause for concern. The cumulative and synergistic effects of multiple chemical exposures, such as the xylenes and the other VOCs in the case of Amesville, are very poorly understood and oftentimes result in higher incidences of disease even at very low levels of exposure.

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