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Organic solvent toxicity

Last updated: January 27, 2021

Summarytoggle arrow icon

Organic solvents are used in detergents, insecticides, and a number of industrial settings. Most of these substances are highly lipid-soluble and therefore capable of causing CNS disorders and polyneuropathy. Some organic solvents break down into metabolites that are carcinogenic. While the metabolites may be found in urine or blood, the diagnosis is usually established based on clinical features and a history of exposure. Most organic solvents do not have an antidote; therefore, treatment is generally supportive.

For an overview of other types of substance toxicity (e.g., with organophosphates), see the article on poisoning.

Overview of some organic solvents

High lipid solubility





Classification and sources of exposure

  • Aromatic hydrocarbon : benzene
    • Found in solvents, glues, nail polishes, cigarette smoke, car emissions, paints
    • Benzene derivatives: a hydrocarbon (e.g., xylene, toluene), amine group (e.g., aniline), or a nitro-compound (e.g.,nitrobenzene) attached to a benzene ring
  • Aliphatic hydrocarbon
    • Examples: n-hexane; , heptane, methane, ethane, propane, butane, octane
    • Found in gasoline or kerosene (solvents, paraffin wax, lighter fluid, furniture polishes, and lamp oil)
  • Halogenated hydrocarbon
    • Examples: methylene chloride, chloroform, carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethylene , tetrachloroethylene
    • From biomass burning or natural production by fungi/bacteria
    • CCl4: formerly widely used in fire extinguishers, refrigerants, dry-cleaning fluids, and propellants
  • Terpene hydrocarbon : turpentine in the form of pine/turpentine oil, which is used in the rubber, painting, or welding industries


Diagnosis and treatment

  1. Marquardt H, Schäfer SG, McClellan R, Welsch F . Toxicology. Academic Press ; 1999
  2. Levine MD. Hydrocarbon Toxicity. In: Miller MA, Hydrocarbon Toxicity. New York, NY: WebMD. Updated: June 6, 2017. Accessed: September 26, 2017.
  3. Roberts SM, James RC, Williams PL. Principles of Toxicology: Environmental and Industrial Applications. John Wiley & Sons ; 2014