Benzene is a colorless, flammable liquid that has a sweet smell and evaporates quickly. Humans can be exposed to it through natural processes like volcanoes or forest fires, but mostly are exposed through man-made processes. It is used in many industries as a starting chemical for the creation of other chemicals. People are exposed primarily by breathing it in, but it can also be absorbed through the skin when touching gasoline, although this is rare because benzene evaporates quickly.
Benzene is used in:
People can be exposed to benzene through their job, the environment, and some consumer products. The largest source of benzene exposure is through cigarette smoke, accounting for half of all benzene exposures, but such exposures can occur in many ways. In addition to the products listed above, steelworkers, printers, lab technicians, gas station employees, factory workers, and firefighters can all be exposed to benzene. People can also become exposed through gas fumes, automobile exhaust, factory emissions, and wastewater. Benzene is found in urban and rural communities, but the levels tend to be low. Unventilated rooms with fumes from gasoline, glues, solvents, paints, and art supplies can also be problematic. Benzene is a widely used cleaning agent that has been used in many industries to clean floors in plants, decks of ships, and even small items like microchips. Paint contains benzene so painters are exposed on a daily basis. Finally, benzene can be found in contaminated drinking water and some foods but this is rare.
Benzene creates both long and short term effects on the body. When inhaled, the short term effects include drowsiness, dizziness, headaches, tremors, confusion, and unconsciousness due to the effect on the nervous system. Long term effects include damage to bone marrow, leading to many health problems in the future. Harming bone marrow can cause anemia (low red blood cell count), low white blood cell count, which leads to the body’s inability to fight infections, and a low platelet count leading to excessive bruising and bleeding. Benzene also causes multiple types of cancer including acute myeloid leukemia, childhood leukemia, acute lymphocytic leukemia, multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Benzene causes many health effects so people need to limit exposure to the chemical. Since cigarette smoke accounts for half of all benzene exposures, people need to stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke. Gasoline should not be touched and gasoline fumes should be avoided if possible. Other fumes from solvents, paints, and art supplies should also be avoided. Finally, if your job requires that you be around it, proper protective equipment needs to be worn to prevent the fumes from being inhaled.
American Cancer Society Medical and Editorial Content Team “Benzene and Cancer Risk” American Cancer Society (January 5, 2016). [Link]