Hydrocarbons are the simplest organic compounds, but they have interesting physiological effects. These effects depend on the size of the hydrocarbon molecules and where on or in the body they are applied. Alkanes of low molar mass—those with from 1 to approximately 10 or so carbon atoms—are gases or light liquids that act as anesthetics. Inhaling (“sniffing”) these hydrocarbons in gasoline or aerosol propellants for their intoxicating effect is a major health problem that can lead to liver, kidney, or brain damage or to immediate death by asphyxiation by excluding oxygen.
Swallowed, liquid alkanes do little harm while in the stomach. In the lungs, however, they cause “chemical” pneumonia by dissolving fatlike molecules from cell membranes in the tiny air sacs (alveoli). The lungs become unable to expel fluids, just as in pneumonia caused by bacteria or viruses. People who swallow gasoline or other liquid alkane mixtures should not be made to vomit, as this would increase the chance of getting alkanes into the lungs. (There is no home-treatment antidote for gasoline poisoning; call a poison control center.)
Liquid alkanes with approximately 5–16 carbon atoms per molecule wash away natural skin oils and cause drying and chapping of the skin, while heavier liquid alkanes (those with approximately 17 or more carbon atoms per molecule) act as emollients (skin softeners). Such alkane mixtures as mineral oil and petroleum jelly can be applied as a protective film. Water and aqueous solutions such as urine will not dissolve such a film, which explains why petroleum jelly protects a baby’s tender skin from diaper rash.