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The Effects of Xylene

The Effects of Xylene

Xylene is a clear, colorless liquid, very similar in its chemical composition to the more common compound, benzene. It's an excellent solvent and cleaning agent with applications in the plastic and computer industries, and is also used in producing paint, varnish, and paint thinner. While its primary applications are industrial, xylene has some utility in life science research--it increases blood flow and can assist in the process of drawing blood from a lab animal, and is also used in the preparation of lab slides.

Skin Irritation

According to the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), xylene is a topical irritant. Not only does it cause irritation to skin upon contact, it also increases blood flow, leading to an uncomfortably warm sensation. Because it dissolves oils well, xylene can strip moisture from the skin, leaving it red and raw. Further, it is absorbed through the skin, which leads to a host of other effects including those normally associated with ingestion.

Gastrointestinal Effects

Xylene ingestion is very irritating to the digestive tract, according to the "Toxicity Summary for Xylene," published by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The report notes the potential for severe gastrointestinal distress upon accidental consumption. The MSDS reports that gastric symptoms are more likely to be irritating or uncomfortable than life threatening, but further suggests that it is not advisable to induce vomiting in the case of ingestion, because of xylene's ability to irritate and redden tissue--to induce vomiting can lead to swelling of the esophageal and pharyngeal tissues.

Nervous System Effects

The most potent toxic effects of xylene result from exposure via inhalation--the compound is rapidly absorbed through the lungs into the bloodstream, and quickly produces symptoms including dizziness, headache and altered consciousness, according to the MSDS. In fact, xylene is sometimes intentionally misused for recreational purposes because of this altered consciousness effect, but this is quite dangerous and can result in permanent brain damage. The ORNL report further notes that exposure to very concentrated xylene leads to death in lab animal studies, while chronic exposure at doses insufficient to cause immediate symptoms nevertheless leads to blood and kidney toxicity over time, as well as respiratory and cardiovascular symptoms, fatigue and generalized discomfort.

Reproductive Effects

According to ORNL, ingested xylene leads to increased rates of fetal resorption--a spontaneous abortion in which the fetal material is not expelled, but is simply absorbed by the mother's body. Further, animal studies demonstrate that exposure results in decreased fetal weight and fetal malformations, including cleft palate.

Respiratory Effects

In addition to systemic effects of xylene inhalation, the irritating nature of the compound results in severe respiratory symptoms, according to the MSDS. Coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing are common effects of inhalation exposure. Further, individuals with preexisting respiratory conditions including asthma and emphysema are particularly susceptible to these respiratory effects, as are those with cardiovascular conditions such as angina.

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