Air toxics and indoor air quality in Australia

State of knowledge report
Environment Australia, 2001
ISBN 0 6425 4739 4

Part C: Factsheets (continued)


Substance name:Acrolein
CASR number: 107-02-8
Molecular formula: C3H4O; CH2=CHCHO
Synonyms: Ethanal:2-propenal; acrylic aldehyde; 2-propen-1-one; acrylaldehyde; acraldehyde; aqualin

Physical and chemical properties

Acrolein is a colourless or yellow liquid with a disagreeable odour. It is highly flammable.

Melting point: -88°C
Boiling point: 52.5°C
Specific gravity: 0.8621 @ 0°C
Vapour pressure: 210 mm Hg @ 20°C
Flashpoint: less than -18°C (open cup method) (Merck 1997)

Acrolein is soluble in 2–3 parts of water. It is soluble in alcohol and ether.

Acrolein is unstable, polymerising (especially under light or in the presence of alkali or strong acid) to form disacryl, a plastic solid (Merck 1996).

Common uses

Acrolein is used to make other chemicals and pesticides. It is an aquatic herbicide.

It is used in the manufacture of colloidal forms of metals, to make plastics and perfumes and as a warning agent in methyl chloride refrigerant. It has been used in military poison gas mixtures.

Sources of emissions

Point sources

Oil or coal power plants. Occupational exposure to acrolein could occur in industries that use acrolein to make other chemicals. (US EPA 1998)

Diffuse sources

Acrolein can be formed from the breakdown of certain pollutants found in outdoor air, from burning tobacco, or from burning gasoline. It is found in some livestock feeds and pesticides. (US EPA 1998)

Natural sources

Small amounts of acrolein can be formed and can enter the air when organic matter such as trees and other plants, including tobacco, are burned.

Mobile sources

Small amounts of acrolein can be formed and can enter the air when fuels such as gasoline and oil are burned in automobiles (US EPA 1998)

Consumer products that may contain acrolein

Small amounts of acrolein may be found in some foods, such as fried foods, cooking oils, and roasted coffee. (US EPA 1998)

Exposure in the home environment may occur from the products of combustion from burning wood in stoves and fireplaces.

Health effects

How might I be exposed to acrolein?

People who live near a hazardous waste site in which acrolein is not stored properly could be exposed to acrolein from breathing air or drinking water; the former is more likely because acrolein easily changes into a vapour. A child playing in this hazardous waste site could be exposed by drinking water that contains small amounts of acrolein, by eating soil that contains acrolein, or by getting soil on his or her skin.

People could be exposed to acrolein in many other ways that have nothing to do with hazardous waste sites. Acrolein can be formed by the breakdown of many pollutants found in outdoor air. Burning tobacco and other plants forms acrolein, and you breathe acrolein when you smoke tobacco or are near someone who is smoking. You also breathe acrolein when you are near automobiles, because burning gasoline forms acrolein, which enters the air. If you live near an oil or coal power plant, you breathe small amounts of acrolein. Acrolein is formed when fats are heated. Small amounts of acrolein may also be found in foods such as fried foods, cooking oils, and roasted coffee. You could breathe in acrolein if you work in an industry that uses acrolein to make other chemicals.

There is very little information on the levels of acrolein that are usually in outside air, but they are probably low. However, in several large American cities acrolein has been measured at levels of 9 parts acrolein in one billion parts air (9 ppb). The levels in inside air can be much higher if you smoke tobacco. For example, in a car with three people smoking and the windows closed, you could breathe in 300 ppb.

Acrolein has not been found in drinking water and is not commonly found in surface waters such as lakes and streams. The background levels of acrolein in these waters or in soil are not known. Although acrolein is in certain foods, the amount that is in the foods is not known.

By what pathways might acrolein enter my body?

If you breathed acrolein, most of it would enter your body within minutes. If you swallowed acrolein or spilled it on your skin, some of it would probably enter your body, but we do not know how much or how fast. Once in your body, acrolein changes into other chemicals called metabolites. This probably occurs within minutes or hours. Some of these metabolites leave your body in your urine. It is not known how long this takes.

Health guidelines

National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC):

What effect might acrolein have on my health?

How a chemical affects people's health depends on how much of the chemical they are exposed to and for how long. As the level and length of exposure increase, the effects are likely to become more severe. If someone breathed low levels of acrolein for a short time, their eyes might water and their nose and throat might become sore. These effects would disappear within minutes after the exposure stops. However, if they were exposed to higher levels, their lungs might be affected more severely and for a longer time. They would probably smell acrolein and notice eye, nose and throat irritation before it harmed their lungs. Breathing very high levels of acrolein might affect the lungs so severely that the person might die. It is not known whether eating food or drinking water containing acrolein affects your health. However, according to NOSHC classifications, acrolein is harmful if swallowed in products that contain more than 3% of acrolein and toxic if swallowed in products with levels of more than 25%. No one knows if breathing or ingesting acrolein or spilling it on the skin causes birth defects, affects fertility, or causes cancer.

Environmental effects

Environmental fate and transport

Acrolein changes into a vapour much faster than water does at normal temperatures. When heated to high temperatures, it can change into a vapour very quickly. Near hazardous waste sites in which acrolein is not properly stored, acrolein might be found in the air, water or soil. Acrolein does not stay in the air or water for very long. Acrolein that enters the air as a vapour changes into other chemicals within days. Acrolein dissolves easily in water. Within days, some of the acrolein in water changes into a vapour and enters the air. The acrolein left in the water is changed into other chemicals, which are rapidly broken down. Acrolein that enters the soil is washed out in water, changes into a vapour, and is oxidised; it is not known how long this takes.

Environmental guidelines

There are no national guidelines.

What effect might acrolein have on the environment?

Animal studies have reported that the respiratory system is the major target organ for acrolein toxicity (US EPA 1998).


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