Asphalt is a brownish-black liquid petroleum material that hardens when it cools. Asphalt cement poisoning occurs when someone swallows asphalt. If hot asphalt gets on the skin, serious injury can occur.
This article is for information only. DO NOT use it to treat or manage an actual poison exposure. If you or someone you are with has an exposure, call your local emergency number (such as 911), or your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States.
The substances in asphalt that can be harmful are:
- Industrial glues
- Industrial solvents
Asphalt is found in:
- Road paving materials
- Roofing materials
- Tile cements
Asphalt may also be used for other purposes.
Below are symptoms of asphalt poisoning in different parts of the body.
EYES, EARS, NOSE, AND THROAT
- Loss of vision
- Severe pain in the throat
- Severe pain or burning in the nose, eyes, ears, lips, or tongue
HEART AND BLOOD
- Low blood pressure that develops rapidly (shock)
LUNGS AND AIRWAYS
- Breathing difficulty (from breathing in asphalt)
- Throat swelling (which may also cause breathing difficulty)
- Holes (ulcers) in the skin or tissues under the skin
STOMACH AND INTESTINES
Seek medical help right away. DO NOT make the person throw up unless poison control or a health care provider tells you to.
If the person swallowed asphalt, give them water or milk right away, unless a provider tells you not to. DO NOT give anything to drink if the person has symptoms that make it hard to swallow. These include vomiting, convulsions, or a decreased level of alertness.
Before Calling Emergency
Have this information ready:
- Person's age, weight, and condition
- Name of the product (ingredients, if known)
- Time it was swallowed
- Amount swallowed
Your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States. This hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.
This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
What to Expect at the Emergency Room
The provider will measure and monitor the person's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Symptoms will be treated.
The person may receive:
- Blood and urine tests.
- Breathing support, including giving oxygen through a tube through the mouth into the lungs, and a breathing machine (ventilator).
- Bronchoscopy -- camera placed down the throat to look for burns in the airways and lungs.
- Chest x-ray.
- ECG (heart tracing).
- Endoscopy -- camera placed down the throat to look for burns in the esophagus and the stomach.
- Fluids through vein (by IV).
- Products to dissolve the asphalt.
- Medicines to treat symptoms.
- Surgery to remove burned skin (debridement).
- Washing of the skin (irrigation). This may need to be done every few hours for several days.
How well someone does depends on how much asphalt they swallowed and how quickly they receive treatment. The faster medical help is given, the better the chance for recovery. Hot asphalt cools very quickly and is difficult to get off the skin. Serious burns can easily occur from the extreme heat. Construction workers who work with asphalt should wear protective clothing.
Asphalt is hard to swallow, but it may cause serious damage.
Delayed injury may occur, including a hole forming in the throat, esophagus, or stomach. This can lead to severe bleeding and infection. Surgical procedures may be needed to treat these complications.
If asphalt gets in the eye, ulcers may develop in the cornea, the clear part of the eye. This can cause blindness.
Theobald JL, Kostic MA. Poisoning. In: Kliegman RM, St Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 77.
Wang GS, Buchanan JA. Hydrocarbons. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 152.
Review Date 9/23/2019
Updated by: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Emeritus, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.