Benzene is a type of chemical called a hydrocarbon. It is a volatile organic compound that is used commonly in the manufacture of many products including plastics, rubbers, dyes, and synthetic fibers, and is also found in gasoline and cigarette smoke. Exposure to benzene occurs most commonly in workplaces such as industrial plants where it is being used, but can also occur from natural processes such as volcanoes or forest fires. Benzene can build up in water and soil, particularly in and around industrial sites. You can become exposed to benzene by inhalation, by skin contact, or by consuming food or water that is contaminated.
Exposure to liquid or vaporized benzene can be irritating to the eyes, mouth, and lungs. After breathing in a large amount of benzene, you can experience lightheadedness or sleepiness, and can even lose consciousness. Benzene exposure can also cause abnormal heart rhythms and a dangerously fast heart rate. Long-term exposure to benzene, such as in a workplace, can result in blood cancers such as leukemia, low numbers of red blood cells which are needed to carry oxygen, and low numbers of platelets, blood cells that are important in preventing excessive bleeding and infections.
Exposure to tobacco smoke and gasoline are the most common way that members of the public are exposed to benzene. The best way to avoid benzene exposure is by avoiding smoking (active and passive), and by avoiding contact with gasoline by pumping gas safely. People who live near petroleum refineries, gas stations, or certain industrial areas may be at increased risk for benzene exposure, by breathing in small amounts of benzene over time, or because of industrial spills or other accidents. Individuals who work in settings where benzene is found such as gas station attendants, and workers in the rubber, steel and petrochemical industries are at the highest risk for benzene toxicity. A number of governmental and non-governmental agencies work to protect both workers and the general public from benzene exposure. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA
) protects workers by limiting the amount of benzene that is allowable in the air over the course of a work week and by ensuring that at-risk workers use protective equipment such as respirators. Work environments where benzene is used are monitored by checking air samples for benzene. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA
) protects the general population by limiting and monitoring the amount of benzene in drinking water and food, and by managing industrial spills of benzene that could harm the public.
Since methods for measuring your breath, blood, urine, or tissues for benzene are only reliable for a short time and after a very large benzene exposure, if your personal or occupational doctor is concerned that you may be at risk for health effects from benzene toxicity, blood testing to check your blood counts for any abnormalities is the recommended approach. Toxicologists at state poison control centers
as well as at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR
) can be of assistance in managing workplace or environmental benzene exposures that have resulted in abnormalities in consciousness, heart activity or blood counts in people who are exposed.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry Toxic Substances Portal: Benzene. Available online at: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/substances/toxsubstance.asp?toxid=14. Accessed January 18, 2016.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2007. Toxicological Profile for Benzene. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. Air Toxics: Benzene. Available at: http://www3.epa.gov/airtoxics/hlthef/benzene.html#ref4. Accessed January 18, 2016.
United States Environmental Protection Agency Integrated Risk Information System. Chemical Assessment Summary: Benzene. Available at: http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/iris/iris_documents/documents/subst/0276_summary.pdf. Accessed January 18, 2016.