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What is Xylene?

Deanna Baranyi
Updated May 21, 2024
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Xylene, also called xylol, dimethyl benzene, Violet 3, and methyl toluene, is an isomer that can be found in three forms. It is traditionally used in the leather, rubber, and paint industries, particularly as a solvent, a cleaning agent, and a paint thinner. Since it naturally occurs in petroleum, it is not surprising that it is also found in gasoline and jet fuel. It may also be considered a narcotic-type of drug, as it may be an intoxicant if it is inhaled.

Xylene is a highly-flammable, colorless liquid. Typically, it smells sweet, with a scent that is similar to balsam. It is usually refined through an alkylation process from crude oil, but it can also be made as a by-product from coal carbonization, extracted from benzole, or through the methylation of toluene.

There are many ways that xylene may be used. For example, it is sometimes used in making some polyester clothes and plastic bottles. In fact, nearly 50 percent of the xylene produced is used to produce polymers used in plastics and polyester. It is also used as a solvent in the paint and rubber industries. Some steel cleaning agents contain it as well.

If xylene is released into the environment, it will evaporate rather rapidly from the surface water and soil into the air. Within the earth’s air, the sunlight typically breaks it down into less harsh chemicals, but the process may take several days. In soil, it can be broken down by select micro-organisms. If water is contaminated with the chemical, it may build up in shellfish, fish, plants, and other marine life.

It is possible for people to be exposed to xylene. Since consumer products, such as gasoline, rust preventatives, paint varnish, and even cigarette smoke, contain xylene, it is possible for the chemical to be absorbed through a consumer’s skin or through the lungs when these products are used. If a food or water source is contaminated with chemical, it is possible to have exposure as well. In fact, many people are exposed through soil that is contaminated by leaking petroleum storage tanks located underground. Also, people who work in the chemical industry may also be exposed.

There are damaging health effects for people exposed to xylene. Neurological effects may be experienced, such as headaches, dizziness, lack of coordination, and confusion. The eyes may also become irritated and some people may have problems breathing, a slow reaction time, and memory failure. If a person inhales a high level of the chemical, it may cause death. It is considered a narcotic, but it is not a controlled substance.

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Deanna Baranyi
By Deanna Baranyi
Deanna Baranyi, a freelance writer and editor with a passion for the written word, brings a diverse skill set to her work. With degrees in relevant fields and a keen ability to understand and connect with target audiences, she crafts compelling copy, articles, and content that inform and engage readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon981289 — On Dec 10, 2014

There are plenty of other, far less dangerous thinners and solvents which do not include xylene- why is this on the market?

My husband is suffering numerous effects due to his prior employer's use as a paint thinner -- touted as safe, and which many co-workers had been using to thin paint on their skin.

For that matter, plastics production need not rely on xylene either, since plant-based oils are safer, more environmentally friendly, and non-toxic-- from conception, to production, to retail. Screw all these crazy-toxic, environmentally damning chemicals!

Oh, and please stop with the disinformation, p.r. campaign in your previous posts.

By anon355387 — On Nov 15, 2013

The group difference between benzene and toluene is?

By anon324368 — On Mar 10, 2013

Make xylene a controlled substance? That's stupid.

By anon285993 — On Aug 18, 2012

You need an I.D. to buy sudafed. Why not anything with xylene?

By ceilingcat — On Jun 07, 2012

It sounds like xylene is a fairly diverse chemical. It's in gasoline, paint thinner, varnish, but also in polyester clothes and plastic. Even though this chemical is harmful to people under the wrong circumstances, we sure use it for a lot of different things.

There's also the environmental concern to worry about too, so I'm hoping industries that make or use this chemical are highly regulated. After all, people can get sick from xylene in the soil, but it can also affect shellfish and the marine ecosystem.

By indemnifyme — On Jun 06, 2012

@Monika - I don't think there is any reason why xylene liquid should be a controlled substance. How would that even work, anyway? You'd have to show ID to buy paint thinner or varnish, and then only be able to buy a small amount? That just doesn't sound feasible to me.

Plus, there are a ton of other things you can get high off of from huffing, like glue and gasoline. But I don't see anyone clamoring to outlaw glue. Not to mention the fact that alcohol can also kill you, but that's still legal for anyone over 21!

I think in the case of xylene, people should take proper precautions, and parents should pay attention to their children's behavior.

By Monika — On Jun 06, 2012
This stuff sounds really dangerous! It's a narcotic, but it can also kill you, give you trouble breathing, and cause neurological problems. It sounds like it's really hard to maintain xylene safety if you're around this stuff all the time too, because you might start getting used to the smell or the health effects.

I definitely think this stuff should be a controlled substance. Most other narcotics are heavily controlled, but anyone can buy xylene in the form of paint thinner. I think this is really just asking for trouble.

Deanna Baranyi
Deanna Baranyi
Deanna Baranyi, a freelance writer and editor with a passion for the written word, brings a diverse skill set to her...
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