Phenol is highly corrosive to body tissue, "burning" the skin on contact, though as it also a local anaesthetic, its effect may not be immediately felt. Damage to lung tissue can occur if the vapour is inhaled.

It is moderately toxic and can be absorbed into the body by ingestion, inhalation and contact. It is an irritant at low levels and may cause liver damage at higher doses. It affects the central nervous system, and so symptoms of exposure can include muscle weakness and tremors, loss of coordination, paralysis, convulsions, coma, and respiratory arrest. It may also be a carcinogen but this is not proven and phenol remains un-classified.

Phenol is used mainly as a chemical intermediate, which is converted into a whole range of other substances. Strict emission levels and handling routines are in place for workers involved in the production and use of phenol.

Phenol and many substituted phenols are natural components of many substances (e.g. tea, wine and smoked foods), and phenol is also emitted from the combustion of fossil fuels and tobacco. Bacteria in the environment quickly break down phenol, and so levels in air (1-2 days), water (9 days) and soil (2-5 days) are generally very low.

photo: Phenolis naturally present in wine

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