How does gasoline exposure affect a person's health?
Gasoline is a human-made substance that people use primarily to fuel vehicles and other machines that use an engine.
Exposure to gasoline or gasoline vapors in large amounts or over an extended period can cause serious health complications. Ingesting even a small quantity of gasoline can be fatal.
If someone in the United States suspects gasoline exposure or poisoning, they should immediately call Poison Control on 1-800-222-1222, and an expert will provide care instructions. If symptoms are severe, they should also call 911 or visit the nearest hospital.
In this article, we look at how gasoline can affect a person's health, including the symptoms and causes of gasoline poisoning.
Why is gasoline bad for people's health?
The primary use of gasoline is as a fuel for cars.
Gasoline is a toxic and extremely flammable liquid. At room temperature, gasoline is usually colorless or pale brown or pink.
Gasoline contains approximately 150 different chemicals, but it primarily comprises compounds called hydrocarbons, which include alkenes, benzene, toluene, and xylenes.
When even small quantities of hydrocarbons enter the bloodstream, this can reduce the functioning of the central nervous system (CNS) and cause organ damage.
Gasoline is not just toxic when people ingest it. It can also cause damage to the skin, eyes, and lungs when a person comes into contact with gasoline liquid or the fumes or vapors of gasoline.
Burning gasoline releases several harmful chemicals, one of which is carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that can be deadly when people inhale it in high concentrations or for a prolonged time.
For this reason, running a car or use gas-fuelled machines or tools in an enclosed area is never safe.
Symptoms of gasoline poisoning
Gasoline exposure can reduce the functioning of the CNS and damage organs. The symptoms of gasoline poisoning depend on a few factors, such as:
- whether a person has touched, swallowed, or inhaled gasoline
- how much gasoline they had exposure to
- the length of exposure
- their age, body weight, and sex
- whether they also had exposure to other chemicals
Symptoms of gasoline inhalation
Inhaling gasoline vapors can irritate the sensitive lung tissues, and a number of the chemicals can enter the bloodstream.
Once in the bloodstream, some of these chemicals can make it difficult for the body to move oxygen around the body tissues, causing healthy tissue to die.
Symptoms that commonly occur following gasoline vapor exposure include:
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- a headache
- flushing of the face
- coughing or wheezing
- slurred speech
- blurred vision
- difficulty breathing
- heart arrhythmia
- heart failure
Symptoms of skin exposure to gasoline
Getting a small amount of gasoline on the skin for a short period is usually harmless. The skin does not readily absorb the chemicals in gasoline. However, if gasoline remains on the skin or clothing for a few hours, it can enter the skin.
Symptoms of skin and eye exposure to gasoline include:
- mild skin irritation
- skin inflammation
- cracking, blistering, or peeling skin
- pus-like discharge
- first- and second-degree burns
- temporary loss of vision, pain, and discharge if it enters the eye
Symptoms of gasoline ingestion
The gastrointestinal tract does not absorb gasoline as easily as the lungs do, but ingesting gasoline can be fatal.
In adults, 20–50 grams (g) of gasoline, which is fewer than 2 ounces (oz), can cause severe intoxication, and around 350 g (12 oz) can kill a person who weighs 70 kilograms. In children, ingesting 10–15 g (up to half an ounce) of gasoline can be fatal.
Symptoms of ingesting gasoline include:
- slurred speech
- flushing of the face
- blurred vision
- loss of consciousness
- lung and internal organ hemorrhaging
- heart failure
When someone swallows gasoline, they may also experience lung damage if the gasoline in their stomach travels to the lung while they are vomiting.
Causes of gasoline poisoning
People working around gasoline on a regular basis are at risk of gasoline poisoning.
Most people only come into contact with gasoline and gasoline vapors at the gas station or while using their lawnmower.
People who work with machinery have a higher risk of health problems because they have daily exposure to gasoline, gasoline vapors, or other fuels, such as diesel and kerosene.
Examples of these jobs include:
- gas station workers
- garage workers and mechanics
- gasoline pipeline workers
- marine loading dock workers and bulk loading terminal workers
- people who service and remove underground gas storage tanks
- gasoline truck drivers
- workers who identify and clean up gas spills and leaks
- gas refinery workers
- lawn care providers
- toll booth workers
- miners and railroad workers
- people who operate heavy machinery
Over time, gas pipelines and tanks may leak small amounts of gasoline into the groundwater.
Normal purification processes typically remove these trace levels of gasoline, but some people may occasionally come into contact with contaminated water. These people include those who use water from wells to drink, bathe, or both.
Children are more likely to experience serious side effects from gasoline because they:
- absorb more gasoline vapors due to a greater surface area in the lungs
- are generally shorter than adults, and vapor concentrations are higher closer to the ground
- are more likely to ingest toxins accidentally
- do not recognize the signs or smells of exposure as well as an adult might
Consequences of chronic gasoline exposure
If very severe, exposure to gasoline or gasoline vapors can cause permanent organ damage, coma, or death.
Scientists have linked continuous exposure to gasoline vapors for 2 years to liver and kidney cancer in animal studies. However, not currently enough scientific evidence is currently available to prove that gasoline vapour exposure causes these cancers in humans.
Some people intentionally inhale gasoline fumes, because they like the way it makes them feel.
Chronic inhalation of gasoline fumes can cause a wide range of symptoms, including sudden death.
Symptoms of chronic gasoline abuse include:
- impaired gait when walking
- memory loss
- involuntary eye movements
- muscle spasms
- altered vision
- poor appetite
Over time, chronic gasoline abuse can cause more severe and sometimes permanent health problems, such as:
- kidney disease
- nerve disorders
- brain disease
- muscular degeneration
- behavioral and intellectual challenges
Prolonged skin contact with gasoline can affect the skin's natural protective layers. This damage can result in skin peeling and cracking, which can cause scarring in severe cases.
According to the American Cancer Association, chronic or severe exposure to fuel products made from gasoline, such as diesel and benzenes, can also cause severe health complications, including several types of cancer and organ damage.
What to do about suspected gasoline poisoning
If a person suspects gasoline poisoning, regardless of the exposure route, they should immediately call Poison Control on 1-800-222-1222. If symptoms are severe, they should also call 911.
There is no antidote for gasoline exposure or poisoning. Once someone is in the hospital, doctors can provide medications and supportive therapy to try to ensure that a person's heart and lungs continue to function correctly and that they are hydrated.
People should never attempt to treat themselves or others at home.
There are, however, a few general steps that people can follow to help reduce the risk of developing more serious symptoms:
- Move to a well-ventilated area and then call Poison Control if strong gasoline vapors are present.
- Remove all clothing that has come into contact with the gasoline and get in the shower. Rinse thoroughly with powerful running water and soap for at least 15 minutes.
- If the skin is red, blistering, or irritated, call Poison Control. Seek medical attention immediately if these symptoms are severe.
- If gasoline gets in the eye, rinse it with running water for at least 15–20 minutes while blinking frequently. Call Poison Control after rinsing the eye thoroughly.
- If someone has swallowed gasoline, they should call Poison Control. They should slowly drink water if they can swallow, are not having convulsions and are responsive. Never encourage someone to vomit or try to get water down the throat of an unresponsive person.
Gasoline poisoning can cause kidney failure.
With proper medical attention, minor CNS symptoms go away after the body has cleared the toxins, although it can take a few weeks for the kidneys to heal.
If a person washes it off quickly, gasoline usually does not cause significant skin complications.
Severe gasoline exposure of any kind can be fatal. The long-term consequences of this exposure can be significant. They include:
- lung damage
- kidney failure
- loss of vision
- severe scarring
- intestinal damage
- food pipe, mouth, and throat damage
How to prevent gasoline poisoning
People can usually prevent exposure to gasoline vapors by avoiding places where they might encounter gasoline fumes.
People with jobs that expose them to gasoline regularly should always follow proper precautions, such as wearing protective clothing or masks.
Those who work around gasoline can practice good safety habits on site and when handling or storing gasoline, such as:
- avoiding standing close to exhaust pipes
- wearing gloves and protective clothing or masks when handling gasoline for extended periods
- washing the hands thoroughly as soon as any gasoline gets on the skin
- keeping gasoline and gasoline products stored in a safe place that children cannot access
- avoiding purposefully sniffing or huffing gasoline
- booking regular gasoline pipe checks and services
- avoiding using gasoline-powered machines, such as cars or power tools, in an enclosed area without proper ventilation
- practicing gasoline safety habits when handling or storing other products that contain hydrocarbons, such as motor oil, kerosene, lighter fluid, and diesel
Many people do not know if they have gasoline pipelines running through their property. People can access a national pipeline mapping system through the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration website.
People who work around gasoline should talk with a doctor about ways to reduce the risk of long-term health consequences. People should also tell their doctor about any symptoms of overexposure as soon as they develop.
Limited gasoline exposure should not cause significant health problems. However, gasoline and gasoline vapors are toxic, and too much exposure to them can be deadly.
No home remedies or medical treatments are available for gasoline poisoning, only supportive therapies.
If someone suspects gasoline poisoning, they should always call Poison Control, which people in the U.S. can reach by calling 1-800-222-1222.
Call for help immediately if someone is unconscious or having a seizure.
Are there alternatives to petroleum?
Petroleum, or gasoline, is a fossil fuel. This means it was formed by the effects of heat and pressure inside the earth acting on dead plants and animals over millions of years.
Any fuel not formed this way is an alternative fuel.
Examples of alternatives to petroleum include:
- biodiesel made from animal fats and vegetable oils
- ethanol made from grains like corn and barley
- hydrogen fuel cells that make electricity from hydrogen and oxygen