Acetone is used as a solvent for fats, oils, waxes, resins, rubber, plastics, lacquers, varnishes and rubber cements. It is used to make many chemical compounds, rayon, photographic films, plastics, fibres, drugs and other chemicals, for storing acetylene gas, and is present in paint and varnish removers, purifying paraffin and for hardening and dehydrating tissues.
Substance name: Acetone
CASR number: 67-64-1
Molecular formula: C3H6O
Synonyms: Dimethyl ketone, methyl ketone, 2-propanone, b-ketopropanone, dimethylformaldehyde, pyroacetic ether.
Acetone is a colourless liquid with a distinct odour. It is highly flammable. Acetone is used to dissolve other chemical substances and mixes readily with water, alcohol, dimethylformamide, chloroform, ether and most oils. Acetone is considered a volatile organic compound by the National Pollutant Inventory.
Specific Gravity: 0.786
Melting Point: -94°C
Boiling Point: 56.5°C
Relative vapour density: 0.788
Flash point: -18°C
Acetone can polymerise rapidly due to heating and under the influence of air, light and on contact with a catalyst, strong oxidisers and metals such as copper and aluminium, with fire or explosion hazard. As a gas mixed with air, acetone is a fire and explosion hazard. On standing, acetone can form peroxides which may then explode. Acetone will react with iron and steel in the presence of moisture. Acetone is capable of dissolving plastic glasses frames, jewellery, pens and pencils, rayon stockings and other rayon garments.
The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) holds data for all sources of acetone emissions in Australia.
When exposed to acetone, the substance enters the blood stream, exposing all internal organs to the substance. After exposure to acetone at low concentrations, the liver is capable of breaking acetone down to non-harmful compounds that are used to make energy for normal body functions.
Exposure to moderate or high levels of acetone can irritate the eyes and respiratory system and lead to headaches, light-headedness, confusion, increased pulse rate, nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, unconsciousness and possibly coma, and it may shorten the menstrual cycle in women. The smell and irritation to the respiratory organs is a warning signal to help prevent breathing acetone at much higher concentrations.
Acetone exposure can also result in damage to the skin and swallowing large amounts can damage the gastrointestinal tract. Acetone can damage eyes, making them red and sore, and may result in blurred vision, and/or damage to the cornea.
Kidney, liver and nerve damage, increased birth defects and lowered ability to reproduce (males only) have occurred in animals after long-term exposure. It is unknown if these effects would be seen in people after similar exposures.
Acetone is not considered capable of causing cancer.
Entering the body
Acetone can enter the body by inhaling fumes or by contact with eyes and skin. Tobacco smoke also contains low levels of acetone.
Acetone is present in low levels in the environment. Inhalation of acetone at higher levels may occur in the workplace, or from using products that contain acetone (for example, household chemicals, nail polish and paint). Acetone may be consumed by drinking water or eating food that contain this substance, or absorbed by touching products that contain acetone. Children can be exposed by eating soil at landfills or at hazardous sites that contain acetone. Exposure to acetone may result from smoking or inhaling second hand smoke.
Workplace Exposure Standards
Safe Work Australia sets the workplace exposure standard for acetone through the workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants:
- Maximum eight hour time weighted average (TWA): 500 parts per million (1185 mg/m3)
- Maximum short term exposure limit (STEL): 1000 parts per million (2375 mg/m3).
These standards are only appropriate for use in workplaces and are not limited to any specific industry or operation. Make sure you understand how to interpret the standards before you use them.
Drinking water guidelines
There is no guideline for acetone in the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.
Acetone has a slight toxicity when exposed to aquatic life. Acetone has caused membrane damage, a decrease in size and decrease in germination of various agricultural and ornamental plants. The effects on birds or land animals have not been fully determined. Acetone is not expected to bioaccumulate in plants, animals or humans.
Entering the environment
Acetone occurs naturally in the environment. However, industrial processes contribute more acetone to the environment than natural processes.
Acetone is mainly emitted to air. It can move from the atmosphere into the water and soil by rain and snow, and it can quickly volatilise back into the air. Acetone is also capable of moving into the groundwater from spills or landfills, where it can be degraded within days.
Where it ends up
Acetone quickly evaporates to a gas if it is released as a liquid. It degrades in sunlight to other chemicals, with the half life for this being approximately 22 days. It does not bind to the soil or bioaccumulate in animals. Microorganisms in the soil and water are capable of degrading acetone.
Currently there are no environmental guidelines for acetone.
Acetone is produced as a result of manufacturing basic chemicals, plastic products, non-ferrous metals, iron and steel, fabricated metal products, motor vehicles and motor vehicle parts, photographic and scientific equipment, wood products, ceramic products, cement, lime, plaster and concrete products, meat and meat products, rubber products, paper, paper products and industrial machinery. Acetone is also emitted from printing processes, mineral, metal and chemical wholesaling, water supply, sewerage and drainage services and coal mining.
Diffuse sources, and industry sources included in diffuse emissions data
Solid fuels burning for heating in the home and for barbeques and incinerators are thought to be the highest sources of emissions of acetone. It is also present in solvents and aerosols used in the home. Acetone is present in tobacco smoke and landfill sites and is emitted as a result of using lawnmowers.
Acetone occurs naturally in plants, trees, volcanic gases, forest fires and as a product of the breakdown of body fat.
Acetone is present in the vehicle exhaust of cars, aeroplanes and from railway operations.
Acetone is a common ingredient in domestic products. It is found in aerosol paints, architectural coatings, automotive and machinery paints and primers, furniture polish and cleaners, household hard surface cleaners, laundry pre-soaks, pet flea and tick removers, cockroach treatments, laundry starches, lubricating greases and oils, nail enamel and polish and polish remover, particleboard, paints (including interior clear finishes, undercoats and primers), varnish, paint and varnish removers and thinners, liniments for veterinary preparations, pharmaceutical preparations, pre-moistened towelettes, shoe polish, sun tan lotions and oils, and in wood office furniture.
Sources used in preparing this information
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR), ToxFAQs: Acetone, accessed February 2007.
- Environment Writer, Chemical Backgrounder, accessed February 2007.
- Merck and Co. 2001, Merck Index, 13th Edition, USA
- National Pollutant Inventory (1999), Contextual Information.
- Safe Work Australia, Workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants, accessed June 2021.
- National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (2011) - Updated October 2017, accessed May 2018
- Technical Advisory Panel 1999, Final Report to the National Environment Protection Council.
- United Nations, International Chemical Safety Cards: Acetone, accessed February 2007.