Phenols are both naturally occurring chemicals and are manufactured by man. 'Phenol' is the name of the simplest member of the family of chemicals of that generic name. Pure phenol is a colourless or white crystalline solid with a powerful sickly sweet antiseptic odour. Less pure product is usually found as pinkish crystals or liquid. Phenol melts at about 43 0C and boils at 182 0C. It is moderately soluble in water. Other members of the family include the chlorophenols, which tend to be far more persistent, toxic and bioaccumulative than non-chlorinated phenols.
Phenols and their close relatives are widely distributed in nature, being produced naturally by plants and animals including humans. Naturally occurring phenols account for the flavour and colour of certain foods. Aspirin is derived from a natural plant phenol salicyclic acid. Phenols are also used by plants to make lignin, the main natural polymer in wood. Chlorinated phenols are believed to be almost entirely man-made in origin.
Phenol is a major chemical intermediate, used for the manufacture of phenolic resins and synthetic fibres. It is also used as a slimicide (a chemical used to control the growth of bacteria and fungal slime) in industrial water systems, as a disinfectant and in medical preparations such as treatments for sore throats and skin ailments like warts. Chlorophenols are used as wood preservatives, disinfectants and antiseptics and as ingredients in pesticides.
Phenols may be released to the environment from processes in which they are manufactured or from the use of phenol-containing products such as disinfectants. Phenol is also found in vehicle emissions, and smoke from cigarettes, bonfires and forest fire. Chlorophenols are formed during the combustion of chlorine-containing wastes.
Impacts on human health and environment
Excessive exposure to chemicals in this diverse group of chemicals may cause a variety of health effects depending on the particular chemical.
Excessive exposure to phenol may cause health effects on the brain, digestive system, eye, heart, kidney, liver, lung, peripheral nerve, skin and the unborn child. Phenol may also cause genetic damage.
Phenol is moderately toxic to aquatic animals and in general fish appear to be the most sensitive. Chlorinated phenols are more toxic to aquatic life. Phenol is categorised as a Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) that can potentially contribute to ground-level ozone formation and photochemical smog.
Phenol is a priority substance (EC 1179/94, OJ L131, 26.5.94, p.3.) under Regulation 793/93. The draft risk assessment report for environment can be downloaded from http://ecb.jrc.it/existing-chemicals/. The risks for human health are still under discussion by a Committee of Technical Experts representing Member States, Industry and NGOs.
Emission to water reporting threshold: 20 kg/year
Data source: European Pollutant Emission Register