What is benzene?
Benzene is an organic chemical compound with the molecular formula C6H6. It is a colorless and highly flammable liquid with a sweet smell. It is an important industrial solvent and precursor in the production of drugs, plastics, synthetic rubber, and dyes. Benzene is a natural constituent of crude oil, and may be synthesized from other compounds present in petroleum.
Benzene is the largest volume aromatic petrochemical used to produce a number of petrochemical intermediates such as ethylbenzene for styrene production, cumene for phenol and acetone, cyclohexane and nitrobenzene.
Where is benzene found?
Benzene is formed from 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 cigarette smoke.
• Benzene is widely used in the United States . It ranks in the top 20 chemicals for production volume.
• Some industries use benzene to make other chemicals that are used to make plastics, resins, and nylon and synthetic fibers. Benzene is also used to make some types of lubricants, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides.
The main sources of benzene are from the steam cracking or catalytic reforming of liquid petroleum feedstocks, primarily naphtha, where the benzene is recovered from the aromatics stream. Other processes are hydrodealkylation (HDA) of toluene and toluene disproportionation (TDP).
How you could be exposed to benzene • Outdoor air contains low levels of benzene from tobacco smoke, gas stations, motor vehicle exhaust, and industrial emissions.
• Indoor air generally contains levels of benzene higher than those in outdoor air. The benzene in indoor air comes from products that contain benzene such as glues, paints, furniture wax, and detergents.
• The air around hazardous waste sites or gas stations can contain higher levels of benzene than in other areas.
• Benzene leaks from underground storage tanks or from hazardous waste sites containing benzene can contaminate well water.
• People working in industries that make or use benzene may be exposed to the highest levels of it.
• A major source of benzene exposure is tobacco smoke.
Research has shown benzene to be a carcinogen (cancer causing). With exposures from less than five years to more than 30 years, individuals have developed, and died from, leukemia. Long-term exposure may affect bone marrow and blood production. Short-term exposure to high levels of benzene can cause drowsiness, dizziness, unconsciousness, and death.
Most people are exposed to benzene in some form almost every day of their lives. However, this chemical can have deadly effects on those that are exposed to it for long periods of time or in high levels. In fact, Benzene has been classified as a Class A carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. Exposure to Benzene is thought to be partly responsible for the rise in cases of leukaemia amongst both children and adults.
People working with benzene, such as those involved in the manufacture of Benzene products, are at particularly high risk of dangerous levels of exposure, as they are more likely to be exposed to the chemical for longer periods and at higher levels than other people. Where Benzene is concerned, "long term exposure" is considered as twelve months or more.
One of the problems associated with the symptoms of benzene exposure is that they are non-specific symptoms, which can often resemble flu. You may experience fatigue, weakness, weight loss, joint pain, fever, infection, abdominal swelling and pains, and swollen glands. You may also experience abnormal bleeding and excessive bruising.
Long-term health effects of exposure to benzene
• The major effect of benzene from long-term exposure is on the blood. (Long-term exposure means exposure of a year or more.) Benzene causes harmful effects on the bone marrow and can cause a decrease in red blood cells, leading to anemia. It can also cause excessive bleeding and can affect the immune system, increasing the chance for infection.
• Some women who breathed high levels of benzene for many months had irregular menstrual periods and a decrease in the size of their ovaries. It is not known whether benzene exposure affects the developing fetus in pregnant women or fertility in men.
• Animal studies have shown low birth weights, delayed bone formation, and bone marrow damage when pregnant animals breathed benzene.
• The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that benzene causes cancer in humans. Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia, cancer of the blood-forming organs.
What to do if you are exposed to benzene
If you think you may have been exposed to benzene, you should remove your clothing, rapidly wash your entire body with soap and water, and get medical care as quickly as possible.
•Removing your clothing Quickly take off clothing that may have benzene on it. Any clothing that has to be pulled over the head should be cut off the body instead of pulled over the head.
If you are helping other people remove their clothing, try to avoid touching any contaminated areas, and remove the clothing as quickly as possible.
•Washing yourself As quickly as possible, wash any benzene from your skin with large amounts of soap and water. Washing with soap and water will help protect people from any chemicals on their bodies.
If your eyes are burning or your vision is blurred, rinse your eyes with plain water for 10 to 15 minutes. If you wear contacts, remove them after washing your hands and put them with the contaminated clothing. Do not put the contacts back in your eyes (even if they are not disposable contacts). If you wear eyeglasses, wash them with soap and water. You can put your eyeglasses back on after you wash them.
•Disposing of your clothes
After you have washed yourself, place your clothing inside a plastic bag. Avoid touching contaminated areas of the clothing. If you can't avoid touching contaminated areas, or you aren't sure where the contaminated areas are, wear rubber gloves or put the clothing in the bag using tongs, tool handles, sticks, or similar objects. Anything that touches the contaminated clothing should also be placed in the bag.
Seal the bag, and then seal that bag inside another plastic bag. Disposing of your clothing in this way will help protect you and other people from any chemicals that might be on your clothes.