Chemicals covered in this section
This section covers a large group of chemicals made from petroleum. Petroleum distillates are complex mixtures of aromatic and aliphatic hydrocarbons.
They may be liquids that flow easily, spread across a surface very rapidly, and evaporate readily at room temperature, such as:
- diesel oil,
- fuel oil,
- kerosene (also called paraffin oil),
- mineral seal oil,
- mineral spirit (also called white spirit, turpentine substitute, petroleum spirit),
- petrol (also called gasoline),
- petroleum ether,
- petroleum naphtha.
Some other hydrocarbons are liquids that flow slowly, such as:
- lubricating oil,
Soft paraffin is semi-solid and paraffin wax is solid.
Uses and abuses
Kerosene is used as fuel for stoves and lamps. Solid firelighters are soaked in kerosene. Mineral spirits are used as paint thinners, paint removers and paintbrush cleaners. Mineral seal oil is used in furniture polish. There are petroleum distillates in some shoe polishes, window cleaners, furniture polishes, paints, pesticides, and degreasers.
* Floor and car polishes: most contain petroleum wax and water, but some contain a large amount of liquid petroleum distillates.
* House paint and varnishes contain petroleum distillates, but some, such as emulsion paints, contain only small amounts.
* Metal cleaners and polishes may contain petroleum distillates, sometimes with small amounts of ammonia or acid (not enough to cause burns). Some are solutions made with water rather than petroleum distillates.
* Window cleaners usually contain petroleum distillates but some kinds contain only water and detergents (see Soap and detergents).
Petrol (gasoline) and petroleum ethers are sometimes abused by breathing in the vapour (solvent sniffing). White spirit and paraffin do not give off enough vapour to be abused in this way.
How they cause harm
Liquid petroleum distillates irritate and inflame body tissues. Those that spread quickly across a surface can enter the air passages when they are swallowed, or during vomiting, and inflame and damage lung tissues. This is particularly likely to happen if mineral spirit, kerosene, mineral seal oil or petroleum naphtha is swallowed. Swallowing or breathing in petroleum distillates may affect the brain. These chemicals are irritant to skin and eyes.
Abuse of petrol affects the brain and may affect the heart. Chronic abuse may damage the liver and kidneys and cause permanent brain damage. Abuse of petrol containing tetraethyl lead as an antiknock agent may cause lead poisoning.
How poisonous they are
Even very small amounts of those liquid petroleum distillates that flow easily, sometimes as little as one or two mouthfuls, can cause severe lung oedema. The risk from slow-flowing liquids is not so great. The brain is not usually affected unless a large amount has been swallowed or breathed in.
Kerosene fuel, polishes, paint thinners and paint-brush cleaners are commonly found in the home and are common causes of childhood poisoning. While in use they may be left in open containers in places where children can easily reach them. There is a risk of swallowing small amounts of petrol when siphoning fuel from car fuel tanks. Petrol vapour is heavier than air and collects in pits or cellars. Someone who goes into a pit or cellar that is full of petrol vapour may die from lack of oxygen.
Signs and symptoms
* If liquid is swallowed:
- coughing and choking almost immediately,
- sore throat and a burning feeling in the mouth.
From large amounts there may also be:
- weakness, dizziness and headache,
- slow shallow breathing,
After 6-24 hours:
- wheezing and fast breathing,
- lung oedema.
Death may be due to lung oedema or to infection in the damaged lung.
* If vapour is breathed in:
- dizziness and headache,
- other effects as when a large amount of liquid is swallowed, but usually without lung oedema; breathing in a large amount, as in abuse, may cause sudden death.
* On the skin:
- blistering and pain, if in contact with skin for a long time, for instance if wet clothes are worn for several hours.
* In the eyes:
- mild irritation.
Repeated abuse may result in:
- loss of appetite,
- loss of weight,
- muscle weakness,
- mental changes,
- sleeplessness, irritability, restlessness,
What to do
Give first aid. If breathing stops, open the airway and give mouth-to-mouth respiration. If the patient is unconscious or drowsy, lay him or her on one side in the recovery position. Check breathing every 10 minutes and keep the patient warm.
If the patient has a fit, treat as recommended in chapter five.
Take the patient to hospital as quickly as possible.
In the eyes
Wash the eyes for at least 15-20 minutes with water. Take the patient to hospital if irritation is severe.
On the skin
Immediately remove contaminated clothing, shoes, socks and jewellery. Wash the skin well with soap and cold water for 15 minutes, if possible using running water. Take the patient to hospital if irritation is severe or there are burns.
What to do if there is a delay in getting to hospital
If the chemical was swallowed: if the patient is awake and can swallow, give water to drink. Do not make the patient vomit, because liquid might get into the lungs as the patient vomits. Do not give activated charcoal, because it does not bind petroleum distillates.
For lung oedema, treat as recommended in chapter five.
Information for doctors outside hospital
Monitor breathing. If the patient is coughing or wheezing, the chemical has probably entered the lungs. A chest X-ray will help confirm chemical pneumonitis. If possible, repeat lung function tests (such as peak flow or similar tests) every 2-4 hours.
Supportive care, including oxygen and mechanical ventilation, should be given as needed. For repeated fits diazepam should be given by intravenous injection.
Dose: Adults: 10-20 mg at a rate of 0.5 ml (2.5 mg) per 30 seconds, repeated if necessary after 30-60 minutes; this may be followed by intravenous infusion to a maximum of 3 mg/kg of body weight over 24 hours.
Children: 200-300 µg/kg of body weight.
Patients who stay free of symptoms for 12 hours can be sent home.