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Opinion: Toxic Spotlight: Toluene

It’s important to know a thing or two about this common household chemical that can get many people, most often children, high.
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Image by Sarah Mai

Some portion of the people reading this piece may have heard of a chemical called toluene. For those of you who have not, I have a quick summary of what it is and what it can do. Also known as methylbenzene, it is a colorless liquid at room temperature and smells rather strongly. Toluene has a low flash point, which means it easily gives off vapors. This is where it starts to become practically important for most people.

Some of you may have heard of toluene as a drug of abuse. When people “huff,” it is toluene that gets them high. Toluene can be found in paints and paint thinners as well as cosmetics and adhesives. Since it’s readily available in common household products, it can easily be taken advantage of by all members of a household. It’s also the cheapest way to get high. When you pair these facts about toluene together, it should start to make sense that this drug has the youngest demographic of abusers, with many abusers starting at 10-12 years old.

What exactly does toluene do to people? After it is inhaled, it goes from the lungs to the heart to the circulatory system. From there, it crosses the blood-brain barrier and produces a constellation of effects that are most lazily described as “central nervous system dysfunction.” These include things like drowsiness, fatigue, headache, nausea, confusion, memory loss, etc. One way of thinking about it is it’s like getting drunk. Toluene is toxic to neurons, so it can kill your brain cells. To make it very simplistic, huffing paint can literally make you dumber.

Unfortunately, this pattern gets worse the longer you are exposed. Being exposed regularly for months or years can lead to difficulty thinking, eye and airway irritation and even organ dysfunction. It’s even more concerning for children, who might have developmental delays as a result of continued abuse, which as I mentioned before, is the biggest population of abusers.

Finally, some people that can be more vulnerable to toluene’s effects include smokers, people with asthma and people with heart conduction problems (arrhythmias). This piece is not meant to be a call to action; it is just meant to educate about a topic that can be a bit dry, but that college-educated people should know a thing or two about.

Dominik Dabrowski is an occupational and environmental medicine physician at HealthPartners and a graduate student at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. 

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