Benzene is a chemical that occurs naturally and is also used in manufacturing processes. It occurs naturally in forest fires, crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke. Industrial uses for benzene include plastics, resins, and synthetic fibers.
Studies on benzene exposure
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has declared that benzene causes cancer in humans. Long-term exposure (defined as exposure for one year or more) can cause leukemia, which is a cancer of the blood-forming organs. Studies have shown that workers exposed to high levels of benzene have higher rates of leukemia, and especially acute myeloid leukemia. Studies have also shown a connection between benzene exposure and acute lymphocytic leukemia in children, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, apalstic anemia, and other blood-related cancers.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the primary way that long-term exposure damages the body is through the blood. It damages the bone marrow, can affect the immune system and increase the chances for infection. The damage done by benzene will depend on “the amount, route, and length of time of exposure, as well as the age and preexisting medical condition of the exposed person.”
Common methods of benzene exposure
- Outdoor air contains relatively low levels of benzene. This is mostly due to cigarette smoke, gas stations, car exhaust, and industrial emissions.
- Indoor air can contain higher levels of benzene, mostly coming from paint, glue, furniture wax, or detergents; a major source of exposure to the chemical is from tobacco smoke.
- Hazardous waste sites and gas stations create concentrated exposures for those who work there.
- Well water can be contaminated with benzene from underwater tanks at hazardous waste sites.
- Workers in industries that use benzene in production may be exposed to higher levels.
Benzene evaporates quickly into the air, but the vapor is heavier than air so it may sink into lower-lying areas. It doesn’t dissolve well into water, and can float on top of water.
Is there a treatment for benzene exposure?
There is no antidote for benzene exposure. The medical treatment now for benzene poisoning is only supportive medical care. The CDC cautions that for persons who might have been exposed, the most important thing is to get treated as soon as possible.