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Pollutants In My Environment - An Introduction to the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI)

Appendix 1: Methanol - The Story of a Substance

In general, the public is unaware of the properties and uses of toxic substances, yet they are present in some way or other in our daily lives; thus, it might be worth learning more about them. Therefore, the following presentation on and description of a specific substance may serve as a useful example for users of NPRI information, explaining its possible effects on the environment and human health.

Characteristics

Colourless, transparent liquid which readily evaporates
Strong odour at room temperature
a.k.a.: methyl alcohol, wood alcohol or carbinol

Uses for methanol

Methanol is used in the manufacture of the following products:
Pesticides
Pharmaceuticals
Paint stripper
Antifreeze
Gasoline
Cleaning products

It is also found as a solvent in the following products:

Resins
Adhesives
Ink
Pharmaceuticals

Sources

Methanol may come from the following sources:

Pulp and paper plants
Chemical (eg plastics) plants
Crude oil and natural gas extraction processes
Vehicles
Volcanoes and hot springs
Biological breakdown of garbage
Sludge
Waste water
Wood stoves

Forms found in the environment

When methanol is used in industrial processes, it evaporates and is discharged into the air, which is why most methanol releases are reported as gas emissions. This substance gets into the environment for the following reasons:

  • It may mix with rainwater and drain away in run-off;
  • It tends not to stay in the soil but to evaporate into the atmosphere;
  • It may be broken down by microbial action and penetrate the water table.

Environmental effects

Information on the environmental effects of methanol is very limited; for this reason, caution is called for. The known effects of methanol are:

  • It breaks down into other substances which contribute to smog formation;
  • It is a low-level toxin for aquatic and land organisms;
  • In the medium term, it inhibits growth in plants and is fatal to certain animal species;
  • In the long term, it may cause fertility problems in animals.

Effects on our health

As in the case of the environment, little is known about the effects of exposure to methanol, though we do know that it may cause the following:

  • Visual troubles, even permanent blindness, if absorbed through the skin;
  • In heavy concentrations, nausea, vomiting, cardiac depression, liver problems, neurological problems;
  • On direct contact, irritation of the eyes, nose, mouth, throat and skin;
  • May react with the air and turn into formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic.

This information comes from a range of sources, namely the NPRI Summary Report. There are also programs like NPRI in other countries, and these may be a complementary source, accessible through the tools presented in this document. For the Internet addresses of pollutant inventory programs, please go to the NPRI national web site.

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