What is gasoline?

Gasoline is a pale brown or pink liquid with a strong odor. Gasoline is a mixture of about 150 chemicals refined from crude oil. It evaporates easily, is is highly flammable, and can possibly form explosive mixtures in air. Among other chemicals, gasoline contains benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.  These are known as the BTEX compounds.

Gasoline is used as a fuel in cars, boats, lawn mowers and other engines. Gasoline contains additives such as lubricants, anti-rust agents and anti-icing agents to enhance the performance of cars. The most common additive used in gasoline is methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE). It is added to increase octane and oxygen levels and reduce pollution emissions.

How does gasoline get into the environment?

Soil, groundwater, surface water and air can be contaminated by gasoline spills, leaks and improper disposal of gasoline. During the process of filling, emptying tanker trucks, and when filling cars at gas stations gasoline can be release into the air. Gasoline can also enter the environment when there is a leak from underground storage tanks or from pipelines.

What happens when gasoline enters the environment?

Gasoline chemicals evaporate in small amounts when filling your tank or when gasoline is accidentally spilled onto surface, soils and into surface waters. Some chemicals in gasoline dissolve in water.  Chemicals that dissolve in water and evaporate in air breakdown by natural processes.

How can I be exposed to gasoline?

Breathing: Exposure occurs when filling your car’s fuel tank or using equipment that runs on gasoline. Gasoline-contaminated soil and water emit vapors, which can build in basements, crawlspaces and living areas. Exposure may also occur when using contaminated water to bathe or do laundry.

Drinking/Eating: Exposure can occur when contaminated water is used for drinking or preparing food. Municipal water treatment removes traces of gasoline in source water, but if groundwater is contaminated with gasoline water from private wells may contain chemicals. If you have a private well and live near a gas station or previous site of a gas station, consider testing your well for volatile organic compounds, especially if you have noticed a strange odor or taste.

Skin Contact: Gasoline can be absorbed through skin during contact, such as when pumping gas or cleaning up a gasoline spill. People can also be exposed when handling contaminated soil or water.

What are the health effects of gasoline exposure?

Exposure to gasoline causes adverse health effects mainly due to individual chemicals. Effects from exposure to gasoline are caused primarily from BTEX. Breathing small amounts of gasoline vapors can lead to nose and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, confusion and breathing difficulties. Symptoms from swallowing small amounts of gasoline include mouth, throat and stomach irritation, nausea, vomiting, dizziness and headaches. Some effects of skin contact with gasoline include rashes, redness and swelling. Gasoline can damage nervous system and lungs. There is not enough information available to determine if exposure to gasoline causes birth defects.

How likely is gasoline to cause cancer?

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have not classified gasoline for carcinogenicity. There is no evidence that exposure to gasoline causes cancer in humans. However, long-term exposure to high levels of benzene, a component of gasoline, may increase a person’s risk of leukemia.

Can I be tested for gasoline exposure?

There are laboratory blood or urine tests that can determine if you have been exposed to gasoline, but these tests are not generally available in your doctor’s office and are primarily used in research. These tests measure BTEX compounds in your body, which may be present as a result of exposure to sources other than gasoline.

Where can I get more information?

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry ToxFAQs for Automotive Gasoline


Updated 2023