Xylene, xylenes, and total xylenes are generic terms used to refer to three closely-related chemicals: meta-xylene, ortho-xylene, and para-xylene (m-, o-, and p-xylene). Each form (illustrated below) differs from the others in the arrangement of methyl groups around a central benzene ring. Chemists refer to these different forms as isomers. Xylene is a sweet-smelling liquid. It is colorless, quick to evaporate, and very flammable. It does not dissolve readily in water, but mixes well with many organic chemicals.
Xylene occurs naturally in petroleum, coal, and as the result of forest fires. However, industry manufactures most of the xylene found in the environment, using petroleum as a starting material. Most manufactured xylene occurs as mixture of the three isomers, often with traces of other related chemicals, especially ethylbenzene.
Xylene is one of the most common chemicals produced in the United States, and sees many uses in industry. Products containing xylene may include paint thinner, varnish, and cleaners. Industries and industrial processes using xylene may include printing, rubber and plastics manufacturing, synthetic fiber production, and papermaking. It is a relatively small but important component of gasoline.
Structural diagrams: National Institutes of Health
Fate & Transport
Xylene is a liquid, and it can leak into soil, surface water (creeks, streams, rivers), or groundwater, where it may remain for months or more before it breaks down into other chemicals. However, because it evaporates easily, most xylene (if not trapped deep underground) goes into the air, where it stays for several days. In the air, the xylene is broken down by sunlight into other less harmful chemicals.
Xylene can enter the environment when it is made, packaged, shipped, or used. Most xylene that is accidently released evaporates into the air, although some is released into rivers or lakes. Xylene can also enter soil, water, or air in large amounts after an accidental spill or as a result of an environmental leak during storage or burial at a waste site.
Xylene very quickly evaporates into the air from surface soil and water. Xylene stays in the air for several days until it is broken down by sunlight into other less harmful chemicals.
Most xylene in surface water evaporates into the air in less than a day. The rest of it is slowly broken down into other chemicals by small living organisms in the water. Only very small amounts are taken up by plants, fish, and birds. We do not know exactly how long xylene stays in water, but we do know that it stays longer in underground water than in lakes and rivers, probably because it can evaporate from the latter.
Xylene evaporates from soil surfaces. Xylene below the soil surface stays there for several days and may travel down through the soil and enter underground water (groundwater). Small living organisms in soil and groundwater may transform it into other less harmful compounds, although this happens slowly. It is not clear how long xylene remains trapped deep underground in soil or groundwater, but it may be months or years. Xylene stays longer in wet soil than in dry soil. If a large amount of xylene enters soil from an accidental spill, a hazardous waste site, or a landfill, it may travel through the soil and contaminate drinking water wells. Only a small amount of xylene is absorbed by animals that live in water contaminated with xylene.
You may be exposed to xylene because of its distribution in the environment. Xylene is primarily released from industrial sources, in automobile exhaust, and during its use as a solvent. Hazardous waste disposal sites and spills of xylene into the environment are also possible sources of exposure. You are most likely to be exposed to xylene by breathing it in contaminated air. Levels of xylene measured in the air of industrial areas and cities of the United States range from 1 to 88 parts of xylene per billion parts of air (a part per billion [ppb] is one thousandth of a part per million [ppm]; one ppm equals 1,000 ppb). Xylene is sometimes released into water and soil as a result of the use, storage, and transport of petroleum products. Surface water generally contains less than 1 ppb, although the level may be higher in industrial areas. You can also be exposed to xylene by drinking or eating xylene-contaminated water or food. Levels of xylene in public drinking water supplies have been reported to range from 0 to 750 ppb. Little information exists about the amount of xylene in food. Xylene levels ranging from 50 to 120 ppb have been found in some fish samples. Xylene has been found in chicken eggs and in the polystyrene packaging in which they are sold.
You may also come in contact with xylene from a variety of consumer products, including cigarette smoke, gasoline, paint, varnish, shellac, and rust preventives. Breathing vapors from these types of products can expose you to xylene. Indoor levels of xylene can be higher than outdoor levels, especially in buildings with poor ventilation. Skin contact with products containing xylene, such as solvents, lacquers, paint thinners and removers, and pesticides may also expose you to xylene.
Besides painters and paint industry workers, others who may be exposed to xylene include biomedical laboratory workers, distillers of xylene, wood processing plant workers, automobile garage workers, metal workers, and furniture refinishers also may be exposed to xylene. Workers who routinely come in contact with xylene-contaminated solvents in the workplace are most likely to be exposed to high levels of xylene.
Xylene is most likely to enter your body when you breathe xylene vapors. Less often, xylene enters the body through the skin following direct contact. It is rapidly absorbed by your lungs after you breathe air containing it. Exposure to xylene may also take place if you eat or drink xylene-contaminated food or water. The amount of xylene retained ranges from 50% to 75% of the amount of xylene that you inhale. Physical exercise increases the amount of xylene absorbed by the lungs. Absorption of xylene after eating food or drinking water containing is both rapid and complete. Absorption of xylene through the skin also occurs rapidly following direct contact with xylene. Absorption of xylene vapor through the skin is lower than absorption of xylene vapor by the lungs. However, it is not known how much of the xylene is absorbed through the skin. At hazardous waste sites, breathing xylene vapors, drinking well water contaminated with xylene, and direct contact of the skin with xylene are the most likely ways you can be exposed. Xylene passes into the blood soon after entering the body.
In people and laboratory animals, xylene is broken down into other chemicals especially in the liver. This process changes most of the xylene that is breathed in or swallowed into a different form. Once xylene breaks down, the breakdown products rapidly leave the body, mainly in urine, but some unchanged xylene also leaves in the breath from the lungs. One of the breakdown products of xylene, methylbenzaldehyde, is harmful to the lungs of some animals. This chemical has not been found in people exposed to xylene. Small amounts of breakdown products of xylene have appeared in the urine of people as soon as 2 hours after breathing air containing xylene. Usually, most of the xylene that is taken in leaves the body within 18 hours after exposure ends. Storage of xylene in fat or muscle may prolong the time needed for xylene to leave the body.
Short-term exposure of people to high levels of xylene can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, and throat; difficulty in breathing; impaired function of the lungs; delayed response to a visual stimulus; impaired memory; stomach discomfort; and possible changes in the liver and kidneys. Both short- and long-term exposure to high concentrations of xylene can also cause a number of effects on the nervous system, such as headaches, lack of muscle coordination, dizziness, confusion, and changes in one's sense of balance. People exposed to very high levels of xylene for a short period of time have died. Most of the information on long-term exposure to xylene is from studies of workers employed in industries that make or use xylene. Those workers were exposed to levels of xylene in air far greater than the levels normally encountered by the general population. Many of the effects seen after their exposure to xylene could have been caused by exposure to other chemicals that were in the air with xylene.
Results of studies of animals indicate that large amounts of xylene can cause changes in the liver and harmful effects on the kidneys, lungs, heart, and nervous system. Short-term exposure to very high concentrations of xylene causes death in animals, as well as muscular spasms, incoordination, hearing loss, changes in behavior, changes in organ weights, and changes in enzyme activity. Long-term exposure of animals to low concentrations of xylene has not been well studied.
Information from animal studies is not adequate to determine whether or not xylene causes cancer in humans. Both the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and EPA have found that there is insufficient information to determine whether or not xylene is carcinogenic and consider xylene not classifiable as to its human carcinogenicity.
Exposure of pregnant women to high levels of xylene may cause harmful effects to the fetus. Studies of unborn animals indicate that high concentrations of xylene may cause increased numbers of deaths, decreased weight, skeletal changes, and delayed skeletal development. In many instances, these same concentrations also cause damage to the mothers. The higher the exposure and the longer the exposure to xylene, the greater the chance of harmful health effects. Lower concentrations of xylene are not so harmful.
Information excerpted from:
Toxicological Profile for Xylene August 1995 Update