All about Xylene – an old British Standard

What is Xylene?

It’s a type of hydrocarbon, which occurs naturally in petroleum and coal tar and is often referred to as xylenes or xylol.  By itself, it is colourless, slightly oily and has a sweet smell. It is also highly flammable. 

The first known use of xylene was in 1851, after being discovered as a constituent of wood tar. The name “xylene” was given, coming from the Greek name “xylos” or “wood”.

Xylene is used mainly as a solvent and can often be found in thinning agents for oil based paint and varnish.  It’s used as a cleaning agent, degreasing steel, tools and equipment, and fiddly items such as silicon wafers and integrated circuits, and for dissolving and removing adhesives.  It is often an ingredient in nail polishes, lacquers and glues.

The chemicals industries produce xylene from petroleum.  Millions of tons are produced annually.  One of the biggest aromatics plants in the world producing xylene is in Singapore.  It is also on the top 30 chemicals produced in the United States.

British Standard BS 458

The first British Standard on this chemical appeared in 1932 (BS 458:1932), and the specifications prepared by what was then known as the “National Benzole Association”, which sat on BSI’s Chemical Divisional Council.

The specs were for “Pure Xylole”, 3° Xylole and 5° Xylole, covering their colour, density, distillation range, acid levels, paraffin levels and residues on evaporation.

Test methods were given for determining colour, acid-washing, freedom from acids, alkalies, residues and paraffin.  The apparatus used for testing back then were thermometers, distillation flasks, draught screens, and crow receivers – all were described in the standard.

Revisions and withdrawal

BS 458 was revised in 1953 to cover additional grades of xyloles.

By 1963, the National Benzole and Allied Products Association had revised chemical names to end in “ene” to reflect the emphasis having been changed to chemical uses of the products, and the new BS 548:1963 reflected the changes.

In 1977, BD 458 was incorporated into a new standard BS 135, 458, 805 – Benzene, Xylenes and Toluenes.  In 1989 the standard was considered obsolete, possibly because trade in xylene complying with requirements of the standard had declined, and it was not replaced.

Xylene is now covered in the ISO standard ISO 5280:1979, but this has not been adopted by BSI or the European standards body CEN.

What’s available in the Knowledge Centre?

BSI’s Knowledge Centre can provide access to all versions of the withdrawn BS 458.  Members can view withdrawn standards without charge in Chiswick, and they are available for purchase in hard copy and PDF. BSI members receive a 50% discount, free postage and can buy on account.

To find out more please contact the Knowledge Centre at: or on +44 (0)20 8996 7004

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