Toluene is a chemical used in paint thinners, paints, and is a constituent of gasoline as well as aviation fuels such as JP jet fuels. Toluene is ever-present on military bases, and the EPA has found many military bases with toluene ground water contamination. This is mainly due to the fact that toluene is soluble in water, like benzene and xylene-other toxic components of jet fuel. Many junior enlisted men and women spend countless hours painting, stripping, and performing other duties involving occupational exposure to toluene. Exposure to aircraft and even regular vehicle exhaust also exposes military personnel to dangerous levels of toluene. It is likely that the majority of military personnel have been exposed to toluene during their military career.
Chronic exposure to toluene can have serious side effects. These effects are seen most drastically in those who abuse toluene as a drug, often “huffed” from spray paints or computer dusters, but even unintentional exposure via inhalation or consuming contaminated water can have serious repurcussions.
In our neurological system, toluene can cause lesions on various areas of the brain and cause problems with cognition, memory, vision (especially color vision loss), neuropathy, tremors, and ataxia (involuntary movement of the limbs.) Many of these symptoms can be permanent, and stay long after the subject ceases to be exposed to toluene.
Other body systems can be affected as well. Large doses of toluene can have severe effects on the functioning of the heart, causing an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. Toluene can cause toxic liver injury (which is greatly made worse if the exposed drinks alcohol,) and can cause drastic changes in the endocrine system, affecting your thyroid and other glands, and affecting the levels of various hormones in your body, often causing problems with metabolism and reproduction. Toluene exposure can also result in damage to your kidneys, especially renal tubular acidosis.
While toluene has not been proven to be carcinogenic, in the vast majority of cases, if a veteran has been exposed to toluene, he or she has also been exposed to benzene. We have discussed many times on our blog in the past regarding the highly carcinogenic nature of benzene. Often, this “one-two” punch of benzene and toluene, as they are both metabolized in the same manner, can multiply the negative effects of the other, and alcohol consumption can amplify this effect even further.