Benzene Overview

What is Benzene?

Benzene refers to a yellow or colorless liquid at room temperature; highly combustible, dissolves a little in water, evaporates very fast, and contains sweet smell.

Benzene is developed through natural methods and human happenings. The natural resources include volcanoes and forest fires. It is also a natural component of gasoline, tobacco smoke, and crude oil. Benzene can be discharged in the air by way of emissions from the exhaust of a motor vehicle, at gasoline service stations, and the burning of oil and coal. It is useful in the producing industrial applications which include the manufacture of other chemicals, detergents, certain plastics, and dyes.

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 or EPA, concluded that benzene is a cancer-causing substance (like carcinogen), making it as a public concern.

How Does Benzene Exposure Occur?

If Benzene is not properly protected by safety devices and other precautionary methods, the people who are working in companies that produce or apply benzene may be subjected to high levels of benzene. Benzene in its low levels is present in the air because of the emissions from gasoline, service stations, from tobacco smoke, exhausts from vehicles,  waste sites, and other industrial discharges. Benzene can also be present at indoor air because of the presence of products including paints, glues, furniture wax, and detergents. Benzene also drips from the underground storage tanks or harmful wastes sites and contaminates water.

The presence of benzene in the human body can be observed by quantifying its levels in the breath, blood, or the breakdown products in urine. These measurements, however, are not useful in gauging the low levels of benzene. The breath and blood examinations should be done right after the exposure. Benzene can be transformed into products known as metabolites, which can be assessed in the urine. Again, urine tests should be conducted immediately after the exposure and may not be a good indicator of benzene exposure, because metabolites are present due to other resources.

FDA Study – Benzene in Soft Drinks

Lately, the US Food and Drug Administration or US FDA made studies on soft drinks and other beverages to know the levels of benzene in these products. Soft drinks and other beverages may have benzoate salts, like sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate, which serves as a preservative that impedes the growth of bacteria, molds, and yeasts. Drinks may also have Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, to avoid spoilage or to give more nutrients. With some light and heat condition, benzoate salts can respond with ascorbic acid to become benzene.

While the US-FDA has no regulatory restrictions for benzene in drinks other than the bottled water, it applies the standard established by the EPA, which is 5 parts benzene per billion parts of water (ppb) as the highest level of benzene in drinking water.

There is a survey conducted by the FDA and the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition or CFSAN in 2005-2006 which reveals that most of the soft drinks and other beverages until the present time do not create a safety concern, because the levels of benzene contained in those products are negligible or below 5 ppb. While FDA trusts that the beverage industry is making necessary procedures to lower benzene levels, it regularly monitors the companies that produce beverages with high benzene levels shown in the recent survey.

Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Exposure to Benzene

Inhaling high benzene levels can result in symptoms that can be observed within few minutes to several hours. The following are the signs:

  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness
  • Shivers
  • Death, if the individual is exposed to a very high benzene level

Taking food and drinks with very high benzene levels can lead to signs within few minutes to hours which include:

  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Drowsiness
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Convulsions
  • Stomach pains

Benzene can also irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract.

Long-term or chronic exposure to benzene can lead to blood disorders, leukemia, or negative effects on the reproductive system of the females. Blood disorders due to long-term exposure to benzene may also have some effects on the bone marrow, the tissues that are responsible for the production of cells that can result to anemia. Long-term exposure can cause extreme bleeding and injury to the immune system because of the changes in the antibodies levels and the loss of white blood cells.

Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene around the air can result to leukemia, particularly Acute Myelogenous Leukemia or AML.

There are occupational studies that were conducted and revealed that exposure to high benzene levels may impair fertility in women. Women who take in high levels of benzene for a longer period may suffer from irregular menstrual periods or reduction of the size of an ovary. However, effects of high levels of benzene on a fetus or on the fertility of men are not known yet.

Since it is still unknown if children are more vulnerable to benzene toxins than the adults, they may manifest the same symptoms listed above if they are exposed to benzene.

Reducing the Risk of Exposure to Benzene

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA suggests regulating exposure of benzene by restricting the evaporation and avoiding splashes and spills. Industries can control the exposure to benzene by using hoods, canopies, and proper ventilation which should be in coordination with the utilization of personal protective gears. When the engineering controls are not possible, companies or individuals can use some alternatives such as using respirators and other related personal protective gears.

For those who are not working in companies that make or use benzene, chances of exposure can be lessened by restricting contact with gasoline and cigarette smoke.  Families are urged to avoid smoking at home, or in enclosed places, or close to their children.

Benzene Exposure – Getting Legal Help

If you or your family have suffered from any symptoms or developed any health problems related to benzene exposure, seek medical attention right away. If you have used products with benzene without sufficient warnings, or if you are worried that you have been exposed to benzene in your workplace, you can contact a reliable and experienced lawyer to discuss your alternatives and to protect your right to legal solutions.

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