Gasoline and Health

Written by Kristeen Moore | Published on August 31, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Does Gasoline Have to Do With Your Health?

Gasoline is considered dangerous for your health because it is poisonous. Exposure to gas—either through physical contact or inhalation—can cause health problems. The effects of gasoline poisoning can harm every part of the body. It is important to practice and enforce safe gas handling to prevent poisoning.

Inappropriate gasoline exposure warrants a call for emergency medical help. Call the poison control hotline at 1-800-222-1222 if you believe that you or someone you know is suffering from gas poisoning.

Symptoms of Gasoline Poisoning

Swallowing gasoline can cause a wide range of problems to vital organs. Symptoms of gasoline poisoning may include:

  • breathing difficulties
  • throat pain
  • burning in the esophagus
  • abdominal pain
  • vision loss
  • vomiting (with blood)
  • bloody stools
  • dizziness
  • severe headaches
  • extreme fatigue
  • convulsions
  • body weakness
  • unconsciousness

When gasoline comes into contact with your skin, you may experience red irritation or burns.

Causes of Gasoline Poisoning

Gasoline is a necessity in many industries. Gas is the primary fuel used to make most engine-powered vehicles work. In the past, gas was considered far more carcinogenic than it is today. It is the hydrocarbon components of gasoline that make it poisonous. Hydrocarbons are a type of organic substance made up of hydrogen and carbon molecules. They can be found in all sorts of modern substances, including motor oil, lamp oil, kerosene, paint, rubber cement, and lighter fluid. Gas contains methane and benzene, which are dangerous hydrocarbons.

Perhaps one of the greatest risks of gasoline is the harm it can do to your lungs when fumes are inhaled. Direct inhalation can cause carbon monoxide poisoning, which is why you shouldn’t run a vehicle in an enclosed area, such as a garage. Long-term exposure in the open can also damage your lungs.

Pumping gasoline into your gas tank isn’t generally harmful. However, accidental liquid exposure can harm your skin.

Accidental gasoline consumption is far more prevalent than intentionally swallowing the liquid.

Short-Term Implications

Gasoline can adversely affect your health in both liquid and gas form. Swallowing gasoline can damage the inside of your body and cause permanent damage to major organs. If a large amount is swallowed, it can cause death.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is of particular concern. This is especially the case if you work in industries where you operate gasoline-powered machines on a regular basis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, small, gas-powered engines are especially harmful because they emit more poisons (CDC, 2012). Carbon monoxide is both invisible and odorless, so you may breathe it in in large quantities without even knowing it. This can cause permanent brain damage and even death.

Long-Term Implications

While gasoline carries immediate dangers, the health implications can be carried over several years. When you are regularly exposed to fumes from gasoline or diesel (another fuel containing hydrocarbons that is a byproduct of gasoline, used primarily by trains, buses, and farm vehicles), your lungs may start to deteriorate over time. In fact, a 2012 study by the World Health Organization found an increased risk of lung cancer in people who are regularly exposed to diesel fumes (WHO, 2012).

As diesel engines are becoming more prevalent because of energy efficiency, people need to be more aware of the dangers. The following safety measures should be followed:

  • Don’t stand by exhaust pipes.
  • Don’t stand around gas fumes.
  • Don’t operate engines in enclosed areas.

Getting Emergency Help

Swallowing gasoline or excessive exposure to fumes warrants a visit to the emergency room or a call to a poison control center. Make sure the patient sits up and drinks water, unless instructed not to do so. Ensure the patient is also in an area with fresh air.

Be sure to observe the following precautions:

  • Don’t force vomiting.
  • Don’t give the victim milk.
  • Don’t give liquids to an unconscious victim.
  • Don’t leave the victim and yourself exposed to gasoline fumes.
  • Don’t attempt to remedy the situation yourself—always call for help first.

Outlook for Someone Who Has Been Poisoned by Gas

The precise outlook for gasoline poisoning depends on the amount of exposure, as well as how fast the person was treated. The quicker you get treatment, the more likely you are to recover without significant injury. However, gasoline exposure always has the potential to cause problems within the lungs, mouth, and stomach.

While gasoline has undergone many changes to become less carcinogenic, it still has major health risks associated with it. Always act with care when exposed to liquid gasoline and fumes. If you suspect any exposure to the skin or an excess amount inhaled, you should call the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

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