Benzene FAQ

Q: What is benzene?

A: Benzene is a colorless or yellow liquid at room temperature. It is highly flammable, dissolves slightly in water, has a sweet odor, and evaporates into the air very quickly.

Q: Why is benzene dangerous?

A: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), as well as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have determined that benzene is a carcinogen (cancer-causing). Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia, particularly Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML).

Q: How is benzene released into the environment?

A: Benzene is often released into the air through emissions from motor vehicle exhaust, burning coal and oil, gasoline service stations, and tobacco smoke. Benzene may also be emitted from indoor products such as glues, paints, furniture wax, and detergents. Natural sources of benzene include volcanoes and forest fires.

Q: Is there benzene in soft drinks or other beverages?

A: Soft drinks and other beverages may contain benzoate salts (such as sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate). These salts act as a preservative that inhibits the growth of bacteria, yeasts, and molds. Beverages may also contain Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) to prevent spoilage and additional nutrients. When under certain conditions of light and heat, benzoate salts can react with ascorbic acid to form benzene.

A recent FDA/CFSAN study shows that most soft drinks and other beverages to date do not pose a safety concern. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to follow up with companies who produce beverages that exhibit high benzene levels.

Q: What are the federal government standards concerning maximum benzene levels?

A: The EPA has set a maximum contaminant level of benzene in drinking water at 5 parts benzene per billion parts of water (5 ppb).

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set limits of 1 part benzene per million parts of workspace air (1 ppm) for 8-hour shifts and 40-hour work weeks.

Q: What are the effects of benzene exposure?

A: Breathing in high levels of benzene can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, tremors, confusion and unconsciousness. Ingesting high levels of benzene can cause vomiting, stomach irritation, dizziness, drowsiness, convulsions, and rapid heart rate. Benzene is also an eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritant. Breathing or consuming very high levels can lead to death.

The major effect of benzene due to long-term exposure is on blood. There may be harmful effects on bone marrow, causing a decrease in red blood cells, and therefore leading to anemia. There may also be excessive bleeding, as well as effects on the immune system which leads to an increased chance of infection.

Occupational studies also suggest that exposure to high levels of benzene can impair fertility, causing irregular menstrual periods or a decrease in ovary size. The effects on a developing fetus or on the fertility of men are still unknown.

Q: Are there medical tests that show if I have been exposed to benzene?

A: Benzene's presence in the human body can be detected by measuring levels in the breath, blood, or in the breakdown products of urine. These tests should be performed shortly after exposure to benzene. Urine tests may not be a reliable indicator of benzene exposure since the breakdown products may have come from other sources.

Q: How can I protect myself against benzene exposure?

A: OSHA recommends controlling exposure by limiting evaporation and preventing spills and splashes. If you work in an industry that makes or uses benzene, then the use of hoods, canopies, proper ventilation systems, and the use of personal protective equipment is recommended. Otherwise, you should limit contact with gasoline and cigarette smoke. Families are encouraged not to smoke in their houses, in enclosed environments, or near children.


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