Benzene Exposure Can Be Deadly: Everything You Need to Know

Benzene. What exactly is it, and what dangers does it pose? In this blog, we will examine the potential risks associated with exposure to benzene as well as how exposure can and should be limited, especially in industrial settings.

While it may not be as well known as other hazardous chemicals, benzene is extremely common in the United States and is widely used in manufacturing. It is so common, in fact, that outdoor air typically contains low levels of the chemical from sources such as tobacco smoke, vehicle exhaust, and industrial emissions. Benzene can often be metabolized in the liver over the course of a few days, but high levels of exposure can prove to be incredibly dangerous.

The chemical, which is either a colorless or light yellow liquid at room temperature, has a sweet odor and is extremely flammable. It is formed by volcanic eruptions and forest fires, but it can also be found in crude oil, cigarette smoke, and gasoline.

Benzene is used in the following industries:

  • Plastics
  • Resins
  • Synthetic fibers
  • Nylon
  • Rubber
  • Dye
  • Drugs
  • Detergent
  • Pesticides

Workers in the maritime and construction industries are at high risk of benzene exposure, so much so that OSHA has outlined specific standards for those operating in these fields.

What Is the Most Common Route of Benzene Exposure?

When benzene is a liquid, a person may be exposed through the skin or by consuming it. Water and food can be contaminated by the chemical through leaks from underground storage tanks or hazardous waste sites, increasing the chance of dermal or ingestion exposure. However, the most common route of exposure is inhalation.

What Are the Symptoms of Benzene Exposure?

OSHA has long warned against the dangers of long-term exposure to benzene and those products that contain it. Industrial workers involved in the manufacturing of these products are at the highest risk. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), benzene is considered a carcinogen, as it can cause cancer in severe cases. The seriousness of benzene poisoning may vary significantly based on the amount and length of exposure, not to mention the age and health of the person exposed.

Depending on the amount, symptoms of short-term inhalation exposure to benzene include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Unconsciousness
  • Death

Consuming foods or beverages that contain high levels of benzene can cause:

  • Dizziness
  • Convulsions
  • Vomiting
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Death

In larger quantities, or over longer periods of time, severe benzene exposure can lead to:

  • Cancer, especially leukemia
  • Blood disorders
  • Anemia
  • Excessive bleeding
  • Death

Many symptoms emerge within minutes of exposure, so it is important to be aware of the signs of and the treatments for exposure to benzene. The first step to addressing benzene exposure via inhalation is getting fresh air; always leave the area where the benzene was released it was outside, and step outdoors if the exposure occurred inside a building. The next step is to remove any affected clothing while avoiding the head. If the clothing must be pulled over the head to be removed, it’s best to cut it off instead. Clothing that has been contaminated by benzene cannot be washed; it must be properly disposed of. Finally, wash any benzene that has accumulated on the skin with soap and water. Eyeglasses, too, can be washed with soap and water, but contacts should be disposed of along with the clothes.

Should the exposure have occurred over a longer period of time, which could be years or even decades, a doctor must be consulted for treatment. Recent exposures may show up in blood or breath tests. However, these tests cannot be used to determine just how much benzene a person has been exposed to, or for how long.

The Link Between Benzene Exposure and Cancer

Classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), as carcinogenic to humans, benzene has been shown in numerous studies to increase the risk of certain cancers by up to 40%, even through low-level exposure. Other agencies and programs agree on the chemical’s classification, including the National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which maintains the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS).

Benzene exposure may cause cancers, especially blood cancers, such as:

  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)
  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
  • Multiple myeloma
  • non-Hodgkin lymphoma (also known as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma)

How Can Benzene Exposure Be Limited?

The best way to protect against benzene exposure in the workplace is with respiratory protection, as the chemical evaporates very quickly into the air, forming a vapor that may gather and sink into low-lying areas.

For those who are at the highest risk of significant exposure to benzene, namely industrial workers, it’s the responsibility of the companies maintaining the worksites to effectively protect their employees from the dangers of this carcinogenic chemical. Safer working conditions can be attained with proper education and training on the potential hazards associated with benzene exposure as well as providing effective protective equipment to those workers who work closely with it.

Unfortunately, too many workers are unaware of the health risks associated with their work environment, including the dangers of benzene exposure. OSHA urges companies to not only limit benzene exposure as much as possible, but also to arm their employees with the knowledge of how to best protect themselves.

Are Benzene Levels Regulated?

Due to its dangerous effects, benzene is especially monitored in industrial settings.

As mentioned before, OSHA has published standards for benzene in the workplace. These include a limit of 1 ppm in the air during a typical workday, broken down into a limit of 5 ppm over the course of any 15-minute period. Should these levels be unavoidable, OSHA requires that the employer provide effective personal protective equipment to the exposed workers, such as respirators.

Protecting Industrial Workers from Harmful Benzene Exposure

Companies are responsible for their employees’ safety while on the job at all times. Every industrial worker has the right to a safe working environment; when dangers like benzene exposure are unavoidable, it’s especially important for those companies to take the necessary precautions to protect their workers.

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