Benzene...How informed are you?

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by Rudi Nieuwoudt

Benzene, also known as benzol, is a colorless liquid with a sweet odor. Benzene evaporates into air very quickly and dissolves slightly in water. Some industries use benzene to make other chemicals that are used to make plastics, resins, and nylon and synthetic fibers. Benzene is also used to make some types of lubricants, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides. But do you know how Benzene can affect your health if exposed to it for long periods of time? Benzene has been detected at high levels in indoor air. Although some of this exposure might be from building materials (paints, adhesives, etc.), most is from cigarette smoke in both homes and public spaces. 

How does Benzene affect my health?

The major effect of benzene from long-term exposure is on the blood. Benzene causes harmful effects on the bone marrow and can cause a decrease in red blood cells, leading to anemia. It can also cause excessive bleeding and can affect the immune system, increasing the chance for infection.

Some women who breathed high levels of benzene for many months had irregular menstrual periods and a decrease in the size of their ovaries. It is not known whether benzene exposure affects the developing fetus in pregnant women or fertility in men.

Animal studies have shown low birth weights, delayed bone formation, and bone marrow damage when pregnant animals breathed benzene.

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that benzene causes cancer in humans. Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia, cancer of the blood-forming organs.

How can benzene enter and leave my body?

Benzene can enter your body through your lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and across your skin. When you are exposed to high levels of benzene in air, about half of the benzene you breathe in passes through the lining of your lungs and enters your bloodstream. When you are exposed to benzene in food or drink, most of the benzene you take in by mouth passes through the lining of your gastrointestinal tract and enters your bloodstream. A small amount will enter your body by passing through your skin and into your bloodstream during skin contact with benzene or benzene-containing products. Once in the bloodstream, benzene travels throughout your body and can be temporarily stored in the bone marrow and fat. Benzene is converted to products, called metabolites, in the liver and bone marrow. Some of the harmful effects of benzene exposure are caused by these metabolites. Most of the metabolites of benzene leave the body in the urine within 48 hours after exposure.

Immediate signs and symptoms of exposure to benzene

People who breathe in high levels of benzene may develop the following signs and symptoms within minutes to several hours:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Headaches
  • Tremors
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness
  • Death (at very high levels)

Eating foods or drinking beverages containing high levels of benzene can cause the following symptoms within minutes to several hours:

  • Vomiting
  • Irritation of the stomach
  • Dizziness
  • Sleepiness
  • Convulsions
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Death (at very high levels)
  • If a person vomits because of swallowing foods or beverages containing benzene, the vomit could be sucked into the lungs and cause breathing problems and coughing.
  • Direct exposure of the eyes, skin, or lungs to benzene can cause tissue injury and irritation.
  • Showing these signs and symptoms does not necessarily mean that a person has been exposed to benzene.

How you can protect yourself, and what to do if you are exposed to benzene

First, if the benzene was released into the air, get fresh air by leaving the area where the benzene was released. Moving to an area with fresh air is a good way to reduce the possibility of death from exposure to benzene in the air.

  • If the benzene release was outside, move away from the area where the benzene was released.
  • If the benzene release was indoors, get out of the building.
  • If you are near a release of benzene, emergency coordinators may tell you to either evacuate the area or to “shelter in place” inside a building to avoid being exposed to the chemical.
  • If you think you may have been exposed to benzene, you should remove your clothing, rapidly wash your entire body with soap and water, and get medical care as quickly as possible.