We know: All About Benzene

Most of this information was provided by the National Cancer Institute.

What is benzene?

Benzene is a clear, colorless and flammable liquid with a sweet odor. At room temperature, liquid benzene evaporates easily into the air and can dissolve in water. Benzene is present in crude oil and gasoline and is an important industrial chemical which is used in industry as a solvent, or to make other chemicals and products such as dyes, detergents, nylon, and plastics.

Where is benzene found?

Benzene is present at very low levels in air and water in our environment, coming mainly from petroleum and combustion. Benzene makes up about 1 percent of every gallon of gasoline in the United States and it is released as a by-product of fuel combustion. Benzene is also produced in the burning of tobacco. The once widespread use of benzene as a solvent in paints, adhesives, and paint removers has decreased in recent years.

How might people be exposed to benzene?

People can be exposed to benzene by smoking, breathing second-hand smoke, pumping gasoline, driving, and from air pollution. Elevated levels of benzene can occur in the air around gas stations, areas of high car traffic, and industrial plants that either produce or use it.

What are the short term effects of exposure?

  • skin, eye and respiratory tract irritation
  • headache, drowsiness and dizziness
  • very high exposures can cause unconsciousness and death

Can people get cancer from being exposed to benzene?

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), after examining many scientific studies, concluded that benzene does cause cancer in humans. Occupational studies of workers exposed to high levels of benzene have shown that benzene causes leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow (where blood cells are made).

Also, long term effects of exposure can result in anemia and can affect the immune system.

Is benzene regulated by the U.S. government?

Yes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), charged with protecting human health and the environment, regulates benzene in the air and water, as well as emissions by industry. Levels of benzene in the air vary.

The EPA has passed laws to limit the use and release of benzene to keep these levels as low as possible. Regulations set by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) limit workplace exposure to a maximum of one part benzene per million parts air (ppm), averaged over an eight-hour workday.

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