Acrylonitrile Profile

General Information

Acrylonitrile is a volatile, highly reactive, colourless liquid.[1] It is soluble in water and many other common organic solvents.[2] Acrylonitrile does not occur naturally,[3] but has been an important industrial chemical since the 1940s.[1]

Acrylonitrile may also be referred to as vinyl cyanide or cyanoethylene.[4] There are numerous other synonyms and product names; see the Hazardous Substances Data Bank (HSDB) for more information.[4]

Acrylonitrile was classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 1999 as Group 2B, possibly carcinogenic to humans, based on evidence in experimental animals.[5] Acrylonitrile was found to cause cancer in rats, with tumours reported in the central nervous system, mammary gland, and a few other rare tumour sites.[5]

Several epidemiological studies in the 1970s and 1980s identified a link between occupational exposure to acrylonitrile and lung cancer, however these findings have not been conclusively confirmed in larger, more recent studies.[5]

Inhalation of acrylonitrile can cause respiratory irritation and, at higher levels, neurological symptoms including dizziness, weakness, headache, and impaired judgment.[6] Dermal exposure can result in skin irritation and blistering.[6]

Regulations and Guidelines

Occupational exposure limits (OEL) [7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21]

Canadian JurisdictionsOEL (ppm)
Canada Labour Code2 [sk]
BC, AB, MB, NL, PE, NB, NS2 [sk]
ON2 [sk]
10 [c]
NT, NU, SK2 [sk]
4 [stel]
QC2 [sk, em]
YT20 [sk]
30 [stel]
Other JurisdictionOEL (ppm)
ACGIH 2020 TLV2 [sk]
ppm = parts per million
sk = easily absorbed through the skin
c = ceiling (not to be exceeded at any time)
stel = short term exposure limit (15 min. maximum)
em = exposure must be reduced to the minimum
ACGIH = American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists
TLV = threshold limit value

Canadian environmental guidelines and standards*

BC’s Contaminated Sites Regulation, BC Reg 375/96

Sets soil standards for the protection of human health:
Agricultural and low density residential sites: 15 μg/g
Urban park and high density residential sites: 25 μg/g
Commercial and industrial sites: 60 μg/g

Drinking water: 5 μg/L

Sets vapour standards for the protection of human health:
Agricultural, urban park, residential use standard: 0.5 μg/m3
Commercial use standard: 0.5 μg/m3
Industrial use standard: 1.5 μg/m3
Parkade use standard: 1.0 μg/m3
(Vapours derived from soil, sediment, or water)

Ontario Ambient Air Quality CriteriaAnnual: 0.12 µg/m3
24 hour: 0.6 µg/m3
Alberta Ambient Air Quality ObjectivesAnnual: 2 µg/m3
1 hour: 43 µg/m3
Quebec’s Clean Air Regulation1 year limit: 12 µg/m3; Prohibited discharge into the air if the concentration of acrylonitrile exceeds the standard2011[25]
Ontario’s Air Pollution – Local Air Quality Regulation Standards24-hour standard: 0.6 µg/m3; Prohibited discharge into the air if the concentration of acrylonitrile exceeds the standard2020[26]
*Standards are legislated and legally enforceable, while guidelines (including Ontario ambient air quality criteria) describe concentrations of contaminants in the environment (e.g. air, water) that are protective against adverse health, environmental, or aesthetic (e.g. odour) effects

Canadian agencies/organizations

Health CanadaDSL – low priority substance (already risk managed)2006[27]
CEPASchedule 1, paragraph ‘c’ (human health)1999[28]
Environment CanadaPollution Prevention Plans – Part 4 of CEPA 19992003[2]
National Classification System for Contaminated SitesRank = “High hazard”, potential human carcinogen2008[29]
Environment Canada’s National Pollutant Release InventoryReportable to NPRI if manufactured, processed, or otherwise used at quantities greater than 1,000 kg2016[30]
DSL = domestic substance list
CEPA = Canadian Environmental Protection Act


Acrylonitrile was not included in other Canadian government guidelines, standards, or chemical listings reviewed.

Main Uses

Acrylonitrile is widely used in a variety of industrial applications.[1] For example, it is used extensively to manufacture acrylic fibres, resins, plastics, and nitrile rubbers.[1] Common resins containing acrylonitrile include acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), which is used in business machines and construction material, and styrene-acrylonitrile (SAN), which is used in automotive applications, household goods, and packaging.[1]

Acrylonitrile is also a significant chemical intermediate in producing adiponitrile (used to produce nylon) and acrylamide.[5] Specialty applications of acrylonitrile include producing carbon fibres that reinforce composites for aircraft and the aerospace industry.[5]

Historically, acrylonitrile was used as a pesticide when mixed with carbon tetrachloride;[2] using acrylonitrile as a pesticide ceased in Canada in 1976.[3]

Canadian Production and Trade

Acrylonitrile is not produced in Canada, but it is imported to produce adiponitrile, nitrile-butadiene rubber, diamines, ABS polymers, SAN polymers, and styrene-butadiene latex.[31,32] As of 1999, nitrile-butadiene rubber (NBR, a copolymer of acrylonitrile and butadiene) was produced by one Canadian company with a forecasted production of 30,000 tonnes for 2001.[33]

With no domestic producers, Canadian companies rely on imports of acrylonitrile.[32] The US is the largest global manufacturer of acrylonitrile, producing approximately 1.5 million tonnes per year.[3] The EU and Asia are also major producers.[3] As of 2004, the major buyers of acrylonitrile in Canada included: Akzo Chemicals, Saskatoon, SK; Bayer Rubber, Sarnia, ON; Dow Chemical, Varennes, QC; and Solutia Canada, LaSalle, QC.[32]

Production and trade

Domestic Consumption2,000 t2005[32]
Import3,052 t2015[34]
t = tonne

Environmental Exposures Overview

According to Health Canada, the main route of exposure to acrylonitrile for the general population is indoor air, followed by ambient air.[31] Exposure is expected to be higher near industrial point sources.[2]

Children may be exposed to higher levels than adults. This may be due to their lung surface to body weight ratio, lower excretion rates, and because concentrations may be higher closer to the ground (acrylonitrile is heavier than air).[2,35]

In Canada, the two major sources of acrylonitrile released into the environment are the organic chemical industry (97.4%) and municipal wastewater treatment facilities (2.6%).[2,31] During the 1990s, most acrylonitrile releases reported to the NPRI were from synthetic rubber manufacturers, although this sector voluntarily decreased their emissions by 66% between 1994 and 1999, primarily because one company controlled its fugitive emissions.[2]

In 2003, under CEPA 1999, notice was published in the Canadian Gazette requiring the synthetic rubber industry to prepare and implement Pollution Prevention Plans to reduce acrylonitrile emissions to the lowest achievable levels.[36] Emissions from plastic manufacture, however, have risen substantially since 2000, such that total emissions in 2006 were over four times the emissions in 2000.[37]

Tobacco smoke contributes to indoor air levels of acrylonitrile. In 1990, the ATSDR speculated that cigarette smoking would no longer be a major source of exposure since acrylonitrile use as a fumigant on stored tobacco crops had been discontinued.[2] Recent studies, however, report that acrylonitrile is emitted directly from cigarettes,[38] and that tobacco smoke is a significant source of acrylonitrile in indoor air.[38] Levels of acrylonitrile may remain elevated for several hours after smoking has ceased.[39]

In the past, vehicle exhaust was also a source of acrylonitrile. With the improved catalysts in engines today, little if any acrylonitrile is expected to enter the environment in this way.[31]

There is limited data to assess exposure to acrylonitrile via food.[31] Health Canada reports that the packaging is not currently extensively used in Canada in cases where food is in direct contact.[31]

The sale of food containing acrylonitrile is prohibited under the Food and Drug Act.[31] Acrylonitrile has not been detected above trace amounts in Canadian ambient surface water or drinking water.[3]

Searches of Environment Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) and the US Household Products Database yielded the following results on current potential for exposure to acrylonitrile in Canada:

NPRI and US Household Products Database

NPRI 2015[37]
Substance name: ‘acrylonitrile’
Released into Environment6.5 tPlastic product manufacturing
Paint, coating and adhesive manufacturing
Other chemical product manufacturing
(8 facilities)
Disposed of1.4 t
Sent to off-site recyclingNone
US Household Products 2016[40]
Search TermQuantityProduct Type
‘acrylonitrile’6Sealant (3); Spackle (3)
‘acrylonitrile polymer’1Auto defogger (1)
‘acrylonitrile copolymer’10Olay® (9) and Gillette® (1) body washes
‘ABS copolymer’4cement (4)
t = tonne

Occupational Exposures Overview

Inhalation and dermal contact are the most important routes of occupational exposure.[3]

CAREX Canada estimates that 5,900 Canadians are exposed to acrylonitrile in the workplace. The largest industrial groups exposed are plastic product manufacturing, followed by rubber product and motor vehicle parts manufacturing. Occupations that are most exposed to acrylonitrile include plastic processing machine operators, rubber processing machine operators, and plastic products assemblers and finishers.

A risk assessment by the EU summarized European occupational exposure data and identified the highest mean exposures in fibre production, although they were still ≤ 1 ppm.[41] Further exposures can occur during industrial processes such as burning synthetic polymers, working with glues and adhesives, and firefighting.[42] Firefighters may be exposed to acrylonitrile because the chemical can be released from burning plastics.[42] However, acrylonitrile is very flammable itself and is likely to burn off in a fire, producing hydrogen cyanide, another very toxic gas.[3]

For more information, see the occupational exposure estimate for acrylonitrile.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Jacorna

1. National Toxicology Program (NTP). 14th report on carcinogens for Acrylonitrile (2016) (PDF)
2. Environment and Climate Change Canada. Pollution Prevention Plan for Acrylonitrile (2000)
3. World Health Organization (WHO). CICAD on Acrylonitrile (2002) (PDF)
4. US National Library of Medicine. Hazardous Substances Data Bank (HSDB) (Search term: ‘acrylonitrile’)
5. International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Monograph summary, Volume 71 (1999) (PDF)
6. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Toxicological Profile for Acrylonitrile (1990) (PDF)
12. Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Regulation 5,12 Occupational Health and Safety Regulations (2018)
13. Government of the Northwest Territories. Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, R-039-2015 (2020) (PDF)
15. The Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII). Government of Nunavut’s Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, Nu Reg 003-2016 (2010)
17. Government of Prince Edward Island. Occupational Health and Safety Act Regulations Chapter 0-1 (2013) (PDF)
19. Government of Saskatchewan. The Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, 1996 (2016) (PDF)
20. The Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII). Yukon’s Occupational Health Regulations, O.I.C. 1986/164 (2020) (PDF)
21. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Annotated PELs (2020)
22. Government of British Columbia. Contaminated Sites Regulation B.C. Reg. 375/96 (2019)
23. Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change. Ontario’s Ambient Air Quality Criteria (2019)
24. Alberta Environment and Parks. Ambient Air Quality Objectives (2019)
25. Government of Quebec. Clean Air Regulation, Q-2, r. 4.1 (2020)
27. Health Canada. Prioritization of the DSL (2006)
28. Environment and Climate Change Canada. CEPA List of Toxic Substances (2020)
29. Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME). National Classification System for Contaminated Sites (2008) (PDF)
31. Health Canada and Environment Canada. Priority Substances List Assessment Report (CEPA) for Acrylonitrile (2000) (PDF)
32. Camford Information Services. CPI Product Profiles: Acrylonitrile (2004)
33. Camford Information Services. CPI Product Profiles: Nitrile-butadiene Rubbers (1999)
34. International Trade Centre. TradeMap (Free subscription required)
37. Environment and Climate Change Canada. National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) Facility Search (Substance name: ‘Acrylonitrile’)
39. Sleiman M, Logue JM, Luo W, Pankow JF, Gundel LA, Destaillats H. “Inhalable constituents of thirdhand tobacco smoke: chemical characterization and health impact considerations”Environ Sci Technol. 2014;48(22):13093-101.
40. US Household Products Database (HPD). Household Products (Search term: ‘Acrylonitrile’)
41. European Union. Risk Assessment Report: Acrylonitrile (2004) (PDF)


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