Benzene FAQ

What is benzene?

Benzene is a colorless or yellow chemical compound which is highly combustible, dissolves slightly in the water, and evaporates in the air quickly.

Why is benzene dangerous?

The US Department of Health and Human Services or DHHS, in coordination with the International Agency for Research on Cancer or IARC and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), established that benzene is carcinogen or cancer-causing compound. Long-term exposure to high level of benzene in the air can result in leukemia, especially Acute Myelogenous Leukemia or AML.

How is benzene released in the environment?

Benzene is usually emitted in the air through discharges from the motor vehicle exhausts, the burning oil and coals, tobacco smoke, and gasoline service stations.  Benzene may be released from indoor products like glues, detergents, paints, and furniture wax. The natural sources of benzene will include forest fires and volcanoes.

Is there benzene in soft drinks and other beverages?

Soft drinks and other beverages may have benzoate salts like sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate. These salts serve as preservatives that prevent the growth of bacteria, molds, and yeasts. Beverage may also have Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid to avoid spoilage and other nutrients. If it is under some conditions like heat and light, benzoate salts react with ascorbic acid to develop benzene.

There is a latest FDA/CFSAN study that reveals that most of the soft drinks and other beverages are not threat to health. The US Food and Drug Administration or FDA continues to check with companies that produce beverages that have a high level of benzene content.

What are the federal government standards on the maximum benzene levels?

The EPA has established a maximum contaminant level of benzene in drinking water for 5 parts of benzene per billion parts of water, or 5ppb. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA limits the parts of benzene-like 1 part of benzene per million parts of workspace or 1ppm for an 8-hour shift and a 40-hour workweek.

What are the effects of benzene exposure?

Inhalation of high benzene level can cause dizziness, drowsiness, rapid heartbeat, tremors, confusion, headaches, and unconsciousness. Ingestion of high level of benzene can also cause stomach irritation, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness, convulsion, and rapid heart rate. It also irritates the eyes, skin and respiratory tract. Breathing or taking in of benzene at very high level can even lead to death.

The main effect of benzene due to long-term exposure is in the blood. There may also be harmful effects on the bone marrow and reduce red blood cells that will eventually lead to anemia. There can also be extreme bleeding and effects on the immune system that will later lead to some infections.

Occupational studies also indicate that benzene exposure in high level can damage fertility, develop irregular menstrual periods or reduce the size of the ovary. The effects of benzene to a fetus or on the fertility of men are still unknown.

Are there medical examinations that reveal if I have been exposed to benzene?

The presence of benzene in our body can be detected by quantifying the levels in the breath, blood, or in the breakdown products of urine. The examinations should be done right after the exposure to benzene. Urine examinations may not be a reliable gauge to benzene exposure since the breakdown products may come from other resources.

How can I protect myself against the exposure to benzene?

OSHA recommends restricting the exposure by limiting evaporation and avoiding the spills and splashes. If you are working in a company that makes or utilizes benzene, then you can use hoods, canopies, proper ventilation systems, and the use of a protective device is suggested. Or, you can limit contact with the gasoline and cigarette smoke. Families are encouraged to avoid smoking in their homes, in enclosed places, or close to children.

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