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A Toxic Substance--Hexane
Why is hexane dangerous?

Hexane Structure Image
Hexane is a hydrocarbon (contains mostly carbon and hydrogen). It is an industrial solvent and also occurs in airplane glue, which some uninformed people sniff in order to get "high".

Hexane, a molecule with six carbon atoms, each bonded to hydrogen, is very toxic. The damage caused by hexane includes liver damage and a wasting away of both sensory and motor nerve fibers, especially in the nerves of the limbs (this is called peripheral neuropathy).

Two main things happen in nerves as a result of hexane:

  • Glial cells, found in brain and spinal cord, are killed.
  • Filaments inside of nerve fibers become clustered and clumpy. 

Normally, these filaments are lined up in straight parallel lines inside nerve fibers, and they help transport materials down the nerve fiber. Remember, for example, that a nerve to your toe has the cell body in the spinal cord. Only the cell body can make all the proteins and many of the other compounds needed by all parts of the cell. These materials have to be shipped down the nerve fiber to the terminals. This is a long and difficult transportation process, involving a meter or more, and many substances are transported along normal filaments only at a few millimeters per day. How tall are you? That will give you a better idea of how long transport takes under normal conditions.

Anything that disrupts this transport problem obviously makes a difficult situation much worse. In the case of hexane, one of its breakdown products causes nerve cell filament proteins to cross-link. This cross-linking distorts the proteins, and causes them to clump. The clumping physically disrupts the normal flow of materials, much like a dam stops the flow of water.

How do you get exposed to hexane? Usually it is from breathing organic solvents that contain it, like glues. If hexane gets on the skin, it causes marked irritation (imagine what it is doing to your delicate lungs). Once in the body, it seeks out the brain and makes you feel dizzy, silly, and sleepy. But the damage it is doing to your brain is not funny.

Click here for more information on hexane. For more information on the effects of sniffing solvents, such as hexane, Click Here.


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