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Glossary - Toluene

Toluene, which is also known as methylbenzene, Anisen, and Toluol, is a clear water-insoluble liquid with the typical smell of paint thinners.  Chemically, it is a mono-substituted benzene derivative [in which one hydrogen atom from the benzene molecule has been replaced by a univalent group; in this case CH3].  It is an aromatic hydrocarbon that is widely used as an industrial feedstock and as a solvent.

Like other solvents, toluene is sometimes also abused as an inhalant drug for its intoxicating properties; however, this causes severe neurological harm.  Inhalation of toluene fumes can be intoxicating, but in larger doses nausea-inducing.  Toluene may enter the human system not only through vapour inhalation from the liquid evaporation, but also following soil contamination events, where human contact with soil, ingestion of contaminated groundwater or soil vapour off-gassing can occur.

The toxicity of toluene can be explained mostly by its metabolism.  As toluene has very low water solubility, it cannot exit the body via the normal routes (urine, feces, or sweat), rather it must be metabolized in order to be excreted.  The methyl group of toluene is more easily oxidized by cytochrome P450 than the benzene ring.  Therefore, in the metabolism of toluene, 95% is oxidized to become benzyl alcohol.  The toxic metabolites are created by the remaining 5% that are oxidized to benzaldehyde and cresols.  Most of the reactive products are detoxified by conjugation to glutathione but the remainder may severely damage cells.


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