Gas-burning engines can contribute to air pollution.
What are gasoline and gasoline additives?
Gasoline is a clear or pale brown, highly flammable liquid with a strong odor. It is manufactured from petroleum and contains more than 150 other chemicals, including benzene and toluene and sometimes lead.
Gasoline is used as a fuel for internal combustion engines in cars, some trucks, lawn mowers, motorized equipment, and other vehicles. It can also be used as a solvent. Gasoline additives are chemicals added to gasoline to improve its octane rating and prevent engines from "knocking." Additives can also increase the oxygen level in gasoline, which reduces the pollution emitted by the engines. Burning gasoline releases greenhouse gases that can contribute to climate change.
One of the first gasoline additives was tetraethyl lead, which was phased out when lead in automotive gasoline was banned in the early 1980s in the United States. The most common gasoline additive used now is methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), which is a colorless, flammable liquid with a strong odor. It is added to gasoline to increase octane and oxygen levels and reduce pollution emissions. The chemical formula for MTBE is C5H12O.
You can be exposed to gasoline and gasoline additives through breathing, swallowing, or having skin contact with gasoline. You can breathe gasoline vapors while pumping gas at a gas station or using equipment that runs on gasoline, such as a lawn mower. You can be exposed if gasoline has spilled or leaked into the soil, if you live near facilities that leak gasoline from underground storage containers, or if you use or drink water contaminated with gasoline.
At work, you can be exposed to gasoline if you work at a gas or service station, drive a gasoline tank truck, work at a bulk loading terminal or marine loading dock, remove and service underground storage tanks and gasoline pipelines, find and clean up gasoline spills and leaks, or work at a refinery.
Inhaling or swallowing large amounts of gasoline can cause seizures, unconsciousness, and death. It can also harm the nervous system and cause coma and inability to breathe. Inhaling high concentrations of gasoline can irritate the lungs.
Repeated high exposure to gasoline can cause lung, brain, and kidney damage. If you are pregnant, high exposure to gasoline may damage the developing fetus.
Inhaling or swallowing small amounts of gasoline can cause muscle weakness, cramps, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, confusion, disorientation, slurred speech, feelings of intoxication, irregular heartbeat, insomnia, irritation of the stomach lining, and swelling and irritation of the nose and throat. Direct eye contact with gasoline may cause permanent eye damage. Direct skin contact with gasoline can irritate and burn the skin.
The effects of MTBE on human health are not fully known. MTBE has been found in groundwater and some sources of drinking water, making the water undrinkable because of its taste and odor.
If you think your health has been affected by exposure to gasoline or gasoline additives, contact your health care professional.
For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.
This description is based on the information found in the Web links listed with this topic.
Automotive Gasoline. ToxFAQs (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
Gasoline (US Energy Information Administration)
Gasoline Safety (Texas Department of Insurance) (PDF — 216 KB)
Gasoline. Hazardous Substances Data Bank (National Library of Medicine)
Methyl T-Butyl Ether (MTBE). Hazardous Substances Data Bank (National Library of Medicine)
Methyl tert-Butyl Ether (MTBE).ToxFAQs (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
What Is Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether? (Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center) (PDF — 151 KB)
Last Updated: September 5, 2017