Benzene is a colorless or yellow liquid at room temperature. It’s highly flammable, dissolves slightly in water, has a sweet odor, and evaporates into the air very quickly. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has determined that benzene is a carcinogen, meaning it can cause cancer.
Benzene is formed through both natural processes and human activities. Natural sources of benzene include volcanoes and forest fires. Benzene is also a natural part of crude oil, gasoline, and tobacco smoke. The substance can be released into the air through emissions from motor vehicle exhaust, burning coal and oil, and at gasoline service stations. It’s used in manufacturing a wide range of industrial applications, including production of other chemicals, dyes, detergents, and some plastics.
How Does Benzene Exposure Occur?
If inadequately protected by safety equipment and other precautionary measures, individuals who work in industries that manufacture or use benzene may be exposed to high levels of benzene. Low levels of benzene also exist in the air due to emissions from tobacco smoke, gasoline service stations, motor vehicle exhaust, waste sites, and other industrial emissions. Indoor air may contain even higher levels due to the presence of products such as glues, paints, furniture wax, and detergents. Additionally, benzene leaks from underground storage tanks or hazardous waste sites may contaminate well water.
The presence of benzene in the human body can be detected by measuring levels in the breath, blood, or urine. However, tests must be performed shortly after exposure and may not detect low levels of benzene.
FDA Study - Benzene in Soft Drinks
In 2005, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted studies on soft drinks and other beverages to determine benzene levels in these products. Soft drinks may contain benzoate salts such as sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate, which act as preservatives that inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeasts, and molds. Under certain light and heat conditions, these benzoate salts react with ascorbic acid, or Vitamin C, to form benzene.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates that 5 parts of benzene per billion parts of water (ppb) is the maximum allowed in beverages, but many of the soft drinks tested by the FDA well exceeded this limit. While the beverage industry has taken action to reduce benzene levels in soft drinks, the FDA continues to follow-up with the companies that violated the EPA mandate.
Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Exposure to Benzene
After exposure to high levels of benzene, symptoms sometimes appear within minutes, but can also take several hours. When benzene is inhaled, symptoms may include:
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Death (if exposed to very high levels)
If benzene is consumed in a food or beverage, symptoms may include:
- Stomach irritation
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
Benzene is also an eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritant.
Long-term (chronic) exposure to benzene may cause blood disorders, leukemia (particularly Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML)), or have negative effects on the female reproductive system. Blood disorders that result from long-term benzene exposure may affect bone marrow (the tissues that produce blood cells), which can lead to anemia. Long-term exposure may also cause excessive bleeding, and damage to the immune system.
Women who breathe high levels of benzene over a period of many months may experience irregular menstrual periods or a decrease in ovary size. The effects on a developing fetus or on the fertility of men are unknown. While it’s still unknown if children are more susceptible to benzene poisoning than adults, they can exhibit the same symptoms identified above if exposed to benzene.
Reducing the Risk of Exposure to Benzene
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends controlling exposure to benzene by limiting evaporation and preventing splashes and spills. Preferred controls in industries that make or use benzene include the use of hoods, canopies, and proper ventilation coordinated with the use of personal protective equipment. If these engineering controls aren’t feasible, then the use of respirators and similar personal protective equipment is recommended.
For individuals not working in industries that make or use benzene, exposure can be reduced by limiting contact with gasoline and cigarette smoke. Families are encouraged not to smoke in their house, in enclosed environments, or near their children.
Benzene Exposure - Getting Legal Help
If you or a loved one have experienced any symptoms or have developed any medical conditions related to benzene exposure, you should first seek immediate medical attention. In the event that you have used products containing benzene that didn’t have adequate warnings, or if you’re concerned that you are exposed to high levels of benzene at your place of work, you may wish to meet with an experienced toxic torts attorney to discuss your options and to protect your right to a legal remedy for your injuries.