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Benzene Exposure & Risk

Did You Know?

It can take 30 years or longer for some benzene related diseases to develop. Before 1978, high workplace concentrations were common. Children breathe more, drink more and eat more for body weight than adults.

Benzene Exposure

The evidence linking Benzene and cancer predominantly comes from studies of workers, and relates to leukemia, particularly a type called Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). Leukemia is a cancer of blood-forming cells in the bone marrow.

  • Individuals employed in industries that manufacture or use benzene may be exposed to the highest levels of benzene.
  • Benzene is found in emissions from burning coal and oil, motor vehicle exhaust, and evaporation from gasoline service stations and in industrial solvents. These sources contribute to elevated levels of benzene in the ambient air, which may subsequently be breathed by the public.
  • Tobacco smoke contains benzene and accounts for approximately 50 percent of the public's exposure to benzene.
  • Individuals may also be exposed to benzene by consuming contaminated water.

People are exposed to benzene in three ways: at work, in the general environment, and through the use of some consumer products. The greatest risk for exposure to high doses of benzene occurs from workplace exposures, but the most common exposure to lower doses of benzene occurs in the general environment. The two routes of exposure to benzene are inhalation and skin absorption. However since liquid benzene evaporates quickly, skin absorption, which requires contact with a source such as gasoline, is less common. Therefore, inhalation of contaminated air is the primary route of exposure.

Benzene Occupational Exposure

Workers in industries that make or use benzene may be exposed to high levels of this chemical. These industries include the rubber industry, oil refineries, chemical plants, shoe manufacturers, and gasoline related industries (ATSDR, 1997). In 1987, OSHA estimated that about 237,000 workers in the United States were potentially exposed to benzene (OSHA, 1987). It is not known if this number has changed since that time.

Benzene Environmental Exposure

Sources of Benzene in the environment include gasoline, automobile exhaust fumes, cigarette smoke, emissions from coke ovens and other industrial processes, and waste water from certain industries. While benzene is commonly found in air in both urban and rural areas, the levels are usually very low. Areas of heavy vehicular traffic, gasoline stations, and areas near industrial sources may have higher air levels. Cigarettes have been found to release between 50 and 150 micrograms of benzene per cigarette (NCEA, 1998), so smoking and second-hand smoke may be important sources of exposure to benzene. Benzene has also been identified in contaminated water and food.

How Can Someone Be Exposed to Benzene?

Most people are exposed to a small amount of benzene on a daily basis. You can be exposed to benzene in the outdoor environment and in the workplace. Exposure of the general population to benzene is mainly through breathing air that contains benzene. The major sources of benzene exposure are tobacco smoke, automobile service stations, exhaust from motor vehicles, and industrial emissions.

Vapors (or gases) from products that contain Benzene are glues, paints, furniture wax, and detergents can also be a source of exposure. Auto exhaust and industrial emissions account for about 20 percent of the total nationwide exposure to benzene. About 50 percent of the entire nationwide exposure to Benzene results from smoking tobacco or exposure to tobacco smoke.

Benzene Exposure - Avoid

  • Air containing low levels of benzene from tobacco smoke, car service stations, motor vehicle exhaust, and industrial emissions.
  • Air surrounding hazardous waste sites or gas stations contain a higher level of benzene.
  • Indoor air that have products containing benzene, such as glues, paints, furniture wax, and detergents.
  • Underground storage tanks or hazardous waste sites containing benzene can contaminate well water.
  • There are many industries that expose workers to benzene.
  • Tobacco smoke is a major source of benzene.

Increased incidence of leukemia (cancer of the tissues that form white blood cells) has been observed in humans occupationally exposed to benzene

Benzene Risk

  • Workers employed in industries using or producing benzene have the greatest risk for Benzene Exposure and of suffering the life threatening conditions associated to the carcinogen with estimates of 2-3 million U.S. workers at risk for benzene exposure. OSHA has estimated that 238,000 workers in the U.S. may be exposed to benzene during refining operations, gasoline storage, shipment, retail operations, chemical manufacturing, and plastics and rubber manufacturing. In addition, steel workers, printers, rubber workers, shoe makers, laboratory technicians, and gas station employees can be at risk for Benzene Exposure.
  • Brief exposure (5-10 minutes) to very high levels of benzene in air (10,000-20,000 ppm) can result in death. Lower levels (700-3,000 ppm) can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, tremors, confusion, and unconsciousness. In most cases, people will stop feeling these effects when they stop being exposed and begin to breathe fresh air.
  • Eating or drinking foods containing high levels of benzene can cause vomiting, irritation of the stomach, dizziness, sleepiness, convulsions, rapid heart rate, coma, and death. The health effects that may result from eating or drinking foods containing lower levels of benzene are not known. If you spill benzene on your skin, it may cause redness and sores. Benzene in your eyes may cause general irritation and damage to your cornea.
  • Benzene causes problems in the blood. People who breathe benzene for long periods may experience harmful effects in the tissues that form blood cells, especially the bone marrow. These effects can disrupt normal blood production and cause a decrease in important blood components. A decrease in red blood cells can lead to anemia. Reduction in other components in the blood can cause excessive bleeding. Blood production may return to normal after exposure to benzene stops. Excessive exposure to benzene can be harmful to the immune system, increasing the chance for infection and perhaps lowering the body's defense against cancer.

Benzene Work Exposure

The exposures can happen in the home as well as work. In most cases, look for the job to be the source for Benzene Exposure. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, we should look at the workplace first then turn to home-the site for childhood exposure.

The highest exposures tend to happen in the petroleum industry itself, from the oilfields, to the refineries and pipelines, to the service station or other end-users.

What Should I Do To Minimize My Risk to Benzene Exposure?

  • avoid cigarette smoke, which contains benzene
  • avoiding inhalation of fumes while pumping gas
  • using gas pumps with vapor control where available
  • minimize exposure to vehicle exhaust (e.g. do not idle your car, and use alternative forms of transportation that are less polluting)

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