Public Health Statement for Ethylbenzene


This Public Health Statement is the summary chapter from the Toxicological Profile for Ethylbenzene. It is one in a series of Public Health Statements about hazardous substances and their health effects. A shorter version, the ToxFAQs™, is also available. This information is important because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.

This public health statement tells you about ethylbenzene and the effects of exposure.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies the most serious hazardous waste sites in the nation. These sites make up the National Priorities List (NPL) and are the sites targeted for long-term federal cleanup activities. Ethylbenzene has been found in at least 720 of the 1,467 current or former NPL sites. However, the total number of NPL sites evaluated for this substance is not known. As more sites are evaluated, the sites at which ethylbenzene is found may increase. This information is important because exposure to this substance may harm you and because these sites may be sources of exposure.

When a substance is released from a large area, such as an industrial plant, or from a container, such as a drum or bottle, it enters the environment. This release does not always lead to exposure. You are exposed to a substance only when you come in contact with it. You may be exposed by breathing, eating, or drinking the substance or by skin contact.

If you are exposed to ethylbenzene, many factors determine whether you’ll be harmed. These factors include the dose (how much), the duration (how long), and how you come in contact with it. You must also consider the other chemicals you’re exposed to and your age, sex, diet, family traits, lifestyle, and state of health.

What is ethylbenzene?

Ethylbenzene is a colorless liquid that smells like gasoline. You can smell ethylbenzene in the air at concentrations as low as 2 parts of ethylbenzene per million parts of air by volume (ppm). It evaporates at room temperature and burns easily. Ethylbenzene occurs naturally in coal tar and petroleum. It is also found in many products, including paints, inks, and insecticides. Gasoline contains about 2% (by weight) ethylbenzene. Ethylbenzene is used primarily in the production of styrene. It is also used as a solvent, a component of asphalt and naphtha, and in fuels. In the chemical industry, it is used in the manufacture of acetophenone, cellulose acetate, diethylbenzene, ethyl anthraquinone, ethylbenzene sulfonic acids, propylene oxide, and -methylbenzyl alcohol. Consumer products containing ethylbenzene include pesticides, carpet glues, varnishes and paints, and tobacco products. In 1994, approximately 12 billion pounds of ethylbenzene were produced in the United States.

What happens to ethylbenzene when it enters the environment?

Ethylbenzene is most commonly found as a vapor in the air. This is because ethylbenzene moves easily into the air from water and soil. Once in the air, other chemicals help break down ethylbenzene into chemicals found in smog. This breakdown happens in less than 3 days with the aid of sunlight. In surface water such as rivers and harbors, ethylbenzene breaks down by reacting with other compounds naturally present in the water. In soil, the majority of ethylbenzene is broken down by soil bacteria. Since ethylbenzene binds only moderately to soil, it can also move downward through soil to contaminate groundwater. Near hazardous waste sites, the levels of ethylbenzene in the air, water, and soil could be much higher than in other areas.