Uses. Toluene is a common component in gasoline, glues, and paint products (including nail polish). The chemical is used to manufacture the explosive TNT and may be found in DDT insecticides. Drinking toluene would be unhealthy, although experimental animals have survived oral dosage of the pure chemical. Many recreational users have no access to the pure chemical, and most (if not all) products containing it are poisonous.
Recreational use is by inhaling vapor from toluene, often in a group setting. Toluene intoxication lasts longer than intoxication from assorted other inhalants. Some actions of toluene are comparable to alcohol. Toluene can relax users, cheer them up, and produce hallucinations. Mood may change and become unpleasant, however, often in response to content of hallucinations. People may have delusions of nonexistent abilities to fly or swim or that they must obey commands from some entity. Real-world scenes may seem more brightly lit than normal. Time may be perceived as passing faster. People may feel confused and dizzy and experience difficulty with balance and with controlling their limbs. Mice react to toluene, pentobarbital, and PCP in some of the same ways. Rats respond to toluene, pentobarbital, and ether in similar manners. At a smaller dosage toluene stimulates rats to scurry about, but at larger doses the animals move around less—reminiscent of alcohol. Although some persons use toluene recreationally, others may use it to blunt psychological pain.
Drawbacks. Volunteers who inhaled toluene fumes experienced headache, eye discomfort, and lower performance on tests of thinking ability. Recreational users have reported slowness in thinking, and they have scored lower in intelligence testing than nonusers do. Dementia can be a consequence of the habit. Recreational users may have trouble remembering what they did while intoxicated, and persons with occupational exposure have shown memory damage. Sniffers may also experience nausea, appetite loss, tremors, speech difficulty, double vision, and ringing in the ears. Permanent hearing damage occurs in rats. Industrial exposure may harm a person's ability to move around; such problems may be unnoticeable in everyday life but can be detected with scientific tests. In contrast to such occupational exposure, daily abuse for several years may cause significant problems in mobility; those symptoms may mimic beriberi.
Brain, lung, eye, and liver injury can occur in recreational users. Investigators find that some physical damage may improve if exposure to toluene stops, although brain damage may be permanent. High blood pressure is reported in blood circulating through the lungs. Controversy exists about whether cardiac injury occurs, although a case report notes a heart attack suffered after a teenager sniffed toluene. Another case report tells about a previously healthy toluene sniffer, hospitalized with an extremely slow pulse rate that could result in heart stoppage. Anemia and other changes in blood composition may develop, changes affecting males and females in different ways. For example, in one study of persons chronically exposed to the substance, women had higher blood cholesterol levels than normal, and men had lower levels than normal. Chronic abuse can deplete a person's potassium levels; such depletion can damage muscles and produce irregular heartbeat. Although researchers concluded from one experiment that moderate exposure causes no kidney damage, stronger exposure may result in such harm. The chemical may produce a kidney malfunction called renal tubular acidosis, which might lead to rickets. Renal tubular acidosis can have fatal complications, but case reports indicate the condition can clear up if a victim stops toluene sniffing.
Regular exposure can be dangerous enough, but an overdose can create a medical emergency. In humans an overdose can dangerously speed up the heart, cause seizures and convulsions, and produce coma. Fatalities occur. An unusual hazard comes from the chemical's ability to increase salivation; in one case, a semiconscious person nearly drowned in his own saliva as it flowed into his lungs.
The liquid can be absorbed through skin and may cause skin irritation. Toluene is flammable, thus hazardous around flames or burning cigarettes.
Abuse factors. Monkeys have exhibited as much interest in toluene as in opiates and amphetamines. Tolerance has developed in rats and humans. Dependence is reported in humans, with a withdrawal syndrome including quea-siness, perspiring, facial tics and abdominal cramps, peevishness, and difficulty with sleep. Symptoms last for several days. One reviewer of scientific studies, however, has questioned whether either tolerance or dependence has really been seen. Two experiments with monkeys found that they would self-administer toluene, behavior that is a classic indication of addictive potential, but circumstances in those tests did not simulate conditions of human recreational use. Animals that are strapped down with tubes shoved into a body orifice might well find a drug that reduces discomfort to be more attractive than a placebo, a choice having little to do with the drug's appeal in other circumstances.
Drug interactions. Not enough scientific information to report.
Cancer. Most, but not all, laboratory tests indicate toluene has no potential for causing cancer. Animal experiments have not produced cancer. Whether toluene causes cancer in humans is unknown.
Pregnancy. Toluene passes from a pregnant female into the fetus. Animal experiments designed to duplicate toluene abuse patterns have produced low birth weight and slow maturation of offspring; intermittent birth defects are also observed but without enough evidence to be sure they are caused by toluene, particularly since dosages tend to be so high as to sicken the pregnant females. Chronic exposure to the substance caused pregnancy failure in rabbits. In a mice experiment the death rate of offspring with prenatal exposure was nearly twice the rate of nonexposed offspring. Industrial exposure to toluene has been associated with human fetal deformity and spontaneous abortion, but toluene's exact role is uncertain because the women were exposed to other chemicals as well. Association has been noted with birth defects of the heart and of the digestive and urogenital systems. Such association does not prove cause and effect, but it does indicate areas needing further research. A study of 18 infants with prenatal exposure to toluene found that 39% were premature births, with 9% dying soon afterward. Over half were smaller than normal and had trouble catching up to usual size in ensuing months. Fully 67% had smaller-than-normal heads, implying smaller-than-normal brains. Almost all had classic head and facial characteristics of fetal alcohol syndrome. Similar findings came from a study of 30 infants born to 11 toluene abusers and from a study of another 21 infants. Case reports are consistent with those findings. Most, if not all, toluene abusers also abuse other drugs, so firm conclusions about fetal effects of toluene cannot be reached from these studies and cases. Indeed, one group of researchers concluded that some effects blamed on toluene were actually caused by alcohol abuse during pregnancy.
Additional scientific information may be found in:
Aydin, K., et al. "Cranial MR Findings in Chronic Toluene Abuse by Inhalation." AJNR. American Journal of Neuroradiology 23 (2002): 1173-79.
Devathasan, G., et al. "Complications of Chronic Glue (Toluene) Abuse in Adolescents." Australian and New Zealand Journal of Medicine 14 (1984): 39-43.
Evans, A.C., and D. Raistrick. "Phenomenology of Intoxication with Toluene-Based Adhesives and Butane Gas." British Journal of Psychiatry 150 (1987): 769-73.
Filley, C., R.K. Heaton, and N.L. Rosenberg. "White Matter Dementia in Chronic Toluene Abuse." Neurology 40 (1990): 532-34.
Glaser, H.H., and O.N. Massengale. "Glue-Sniffing in Children: Deliberate Inhalation of Vaporized Plastic Cements." Journal of the American Medical Association 181 (1962): 300-304.
Goodwin, T.M. "Toluene Abuse and Renal Tubular Acidosis in Pregnancy." Obstetrics and Gynecology 71 (1988): 715-18.
Kamiyoshi, S., et al. "[Generalized Muscle Weakness Mimicking Periodic Paralysis in a Patient with Toluene Abuse.]" No To Shinkei [Brain and Nerve] 54 (2002): 427-30. Abstract in English.
King, P.J., J.G. Morris, and J.D. Pollard. "Glue Sniffing Neuropathy." Australian and
New Zealand Journal of Medicine 15 (1985): 293-99. Lurie, J.B. "Acute Toluene Poisoning." South African Medical Journal 23 (1949): 233-36. Marjot, R., and A.A. McLeod. "Chronic Non-Neurological Toxicity from Volatile Substance Abuse." Human Toxicology 8 (1989): 301-6. Massengale, O.N., et al. "Physical and Psychologic Factors in Glue Sniffing." New England Journal of Medicine 269 (1963): 1340-44.
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