n-Hexane: A chemical made from crude oil that is mixed with solvents for a number of uses. Inhaling n-hexane causes nerve damage and paralysis of the arms and legs. Some people abuse products containing n-hexane by inhaling it to get "high."
Most of the n-hexane used in industry is mixed with similar chemicals called solvents. The major use for solvents containing n-hexane is to extract vegetable oils from crops such as soybeans. These solvents are also used as cleaning agents in the printing, textile, furniture, and shoemaking industries. Certain kinds of special glues used in the roofing and shoe and leather industries also contain n-hexane. Several consumer products contain n-hexane, such as gasoline, quick-drying glues used in various hobbies, and rubber cement.
n-Hexane evaporates very easily into the air where it is broken down in a few days. Most n-hexane spilled in water floats on the surface where it evaporates into the air. If n-hexane is spilled on the ground, most of it evaporates before it can soak into the soil. n-Hexane is not concentrated by plants, fish, or animals.
A person is most likely to be exposed to n-hexane by breathing in air contaminated with it. Since it is in gasoline, nearly everyone is exposed to very small amounts of n-hexane in the air. Exposure can occur at work and at home from using products containing n-hexane without proper ventilation.
Breathing large amounts causes numbness in the feet and hands, followed by muscle weakness in the feet and lower legs. Continued exposure leads to paralysis of the arms and legs. If removed from the exposure, the workers recovered in 6 months to a year.
Sometimes older children inhale or "sniff" household chemicals in an attempt to get "high." This has caused paralysis of the arms and legs of teenagers in the U.S. and Europe.
To reduce exposure to n-hexane:
- Teach children and teenagers the dangers of inhaling products that contain n-hexane.
- Keep products containing n-hexane (quick-drying glues and cements) out of the reach of children.
- Maintain proper ventilation when using these products.
- Never store household chemicals in containers, such as old soda bottles, that children might find attractive.
If a person has been exposed to harmful amounts of n-hexane, the amount of one of its breakdown products will probably be increased in the urine. The doctor can send a sample to a specialized laboratory. This test can only detect n-hexane exposure that occurred within 2 to 3 days of testing.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends exposure to no more than 50 parts per million (ppm) in workplace air. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has set a permissible exposure limit of 500 ppm for n-hexane in workplace air.