This fact sheet provides answers to basic
questions about gasoline. It will explain what gasoline is, how you can be
exposed to it, how it can make you sick, and ways to reduce or prevent exposure
WHAT IS GASOLINE?
Gasoline is a pale brown or pink liquid made
from processed crude oil. It evaporates easily, is very flammable and can form
explosive mixtures in air. Gasoline is a mixture of many different hydrogen-
and carbon- containing chemicals (hydrocarbons). A typical gasoline mixture
contains about 150 different hydrocarbons, including butane, pentane,
isopentane and the BTEX compounds (benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and
Gasoline also contains chemicals such as
lubricants, anti-rust agents and anti-icing agents that are added to improve
car performance. These compounds are usually only present in very small
amounts. Before the 1980s, lead was commonly used in gasoline as an
anti-knocking agent. The use of lead has been phased out due to air pollution
and health concerns. Some gasolines also contain ethanol, which is made from
corn. Ethanol helps a car run more efficiently and it produces less
HOW DOES GASOLINE GET INTO THE
Spills, leaks or improper disposal of gasoline
can cause contamination of soil, groundwater, surface water and air. Leaking
underground storage tanks or pipelines also can cause gasoline to enter
surrounding soil and groundwater. Gasoline can be released into the air when
large tanker trucks are filled and emptied and when you fill your car at the
HOW CAN I BE EXPOSED TO GASOLINE?
You can be exposed to gasoline by
- breathing gasoline vapors,
- drinking water contaminated with gasoline,
- touching gasoline or soil or water
contaminated with gasoline.
The most common exposure to gasoline occurs by
breathing vapors when filling your car's fuel tank. Vapors also can be present
in air when gasoline evaporates out of contaminated soil or water. Gasoline
vapors can build up in basements, crawlspaces and living areas. The intentional
sniffing of gasoline also is a public health concern.
When gasoline seeps into soil it can
contaminate groundwater used for drinking. Most chemicals in gasoline are
removed during water treatment, but people who drink untreated water or water
from private wells can be exposed. Gasoline also can be absorbed through skin
during contact, such as when pumping gas or cleaning up a gasoline
WHAT ARE THE HEALTH EFFECTS OF GASOLINE
Many harmful effects of gasoline are due to
individual chemicals in gasoline, mainly BTEX, that are present in small
amounts. Breathing small amounts of gasoline vapors can lead to nose and throat
irritation, headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, confusion and breathing
difficulties. Symptoms from swallowing small amounts of gasoline include mouth,
throat and stomach irritation, nausea, vomiting, dizziness and headaches.
Swallowing gasoline causes many accidental poisonings each year. Some effects
of skin contact with gasoline include rashes, redness and swelling. Being
exposed to large amounts of gasoline can lead to coma or death.
The health effects of being exposed to gasoline
over long periods of time are not well known. This is because people exposed to
gasoline are usually exposed to many other things that also can cause health
effects. Some workers who are exposed to gasoline everyday in their jobs have
suffered memory loss and impaired muscle function. At very high levels, some of
the chemicals in gasoline, such as benzene, are known to cause cancer. Current
evidence, however, does not show that exposure to low levels of gasoline causes
cancer in humans.
CAN I BE TESTED FOR GASOLINE
There are currently no tests to measure
gasoline in your body but, if you think you are ill because of gasoline
exposure, consult your physician immediately. Tell your doctor what you suspect
the contaminant is, why you suspect it and what your symptoms are.
HOW CAN I REDUCE MY GASOLINE
Due to the widespread use of gasoline in cars,
trucks, buses, and lawn care equipment, eliminating exposure would be
difficult. Typically, you can smell gasoline at levels that would not be
expected to cause health effects. Since gasoline can be smelled at low levels,
the source can usually be found and eliminated.
If you suspect that your water supply is
contaminated with gasoline, here are a few ways to reduce your exposure
- If gasoline is in your well water, do not
drink it. Consider using bottled water instead of tap water or connecting to a
public water supply.
- Shower or wash in cooler water. Wash and
rinse clothes in cold water. The hotter the water, the more gasoline evaporates
into the air you breathe.
- Air out bathrooms, washrooms and kitchens
during and after water use by opening doors and windows and turning on exhaust
WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?
Illinois Department of Public Health
Division of Environmental Health
525 W. Jefferson St.
Springfield, IL 62761
TTY (hearing impaired use only) 800-547-0466
This fact sheet was supported in part by
funds from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and
Liability Act trust fund through a cooperative agreement with the Agency for
Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Public Health Service, U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services.