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Benzene Toxicology & Exposure Issues

Source: CDC 9/97

This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions about benzene. For more information, you may call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-888-422-8737. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. This information is important because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.


HIGHLIGHTS: Benzene is a widely used chemical formed from both natural processes and human activities. Breathing benzene can cause drowsiness, dizziness, and unconsciousness; long-term benzene exposure causes effects on the bone marrow and can cause anemia and leukemia. Benzene has been found in at least 813 of the 1,430 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
 
What is benzene?

Benzene is a colorless liquid with a sweet odor. It evaporates into the air very quickly and dissolves slightly in water. It is highly flammable and is formed from both natural processes and human activities.

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 which are used to make plastics, resins, and nylon and synthetic fibers. Benzene is also used to make some types of rubbers, lubricants, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides. Natural sources of benzene include volcanoes and forest fires. Benzene is also a natural part of crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke.

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What happens to benzene when it enters the environment?
  • Industrial processes are the main source of benzene in the environment.
  • Benzene can pass into the air from water and soil.
  • It reacts with other chemicals in the air and breaks down within a few days.
  • Benzene in the air can attach to rain or snow and be carried back down to the ground.
  • It breaks down more slowly in water and soil, and can pass through the soil into underground water.
  • Benzene does not build up in plants or animals.
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How might I be exposed to benzene?
  • Outdoor air contains low levels of benzene from tobacco smoke, automobile service stations, exhaust from motor vehicles, and industrial emissions.
  • Indoor air generally contains higher levels of benzene from products that contain it such as glues, paints, furniture wax, and detergents.
  • Air around hazardous waste sites or gas stations will contain higher levels of benzene.
  • Leakage from underground storage tanks or from hazardous waste sites containing benzene can result in benzene contamination of 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.
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How can benzene affect my health?

Breathing very high levels of benzene can result in death, while high levels can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, tremors, confusion, and unconsciousness. Eating or drinking foods containing high levels of benzene can cause vomiting, irritation of the stomach, dizziness, sleepiness, convulsions, rapid heart rate, and death.

The major effect of benzene from long-term (365 days or longer) exposure is on the blood. 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.

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How likely is benzene to cause cancer?

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that benzene is a known human carcinogen. Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia, cancer of the blood-forming organs.

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Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to benzene?

Several tests can show if you have been exposed to benzene. There is test for measuring benzene in the breath; this test must be done shortly after exposure. Benzene can also be measured in the blood, however, since benzene disappears rapidly from the blood, measurements are accurate only for recent exposures.

In the body, benzene is converted to products called metabolites. Certain metabolites can be measured in the urine. However, this test must be done shortly after exposure and is not a reliable indicator of how much benzene you have been exposed to, since the metabolites may be present in urine from other sources.

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Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?

The EPA has set the maximum permissible level of benzene in drinking water at 0.005 milligrams per liter (0.005 mg/L). The EPA requires that spills or accidental releases into the environment of 10 pounds or more of benzene be reported to the EPA.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set a permissible exposure limit of 1 part of benzene per million parts of air (1 ppm) in the workplace during an 8-hour workday, 40-hour workweek.

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Glossary

Anemia: Decreased ability of the blood to transport oxygen.

Carcinogen: A substance with the ability to cause cancer.

Chromosomes: Parts of the cells responsible for the development of hereditary characteristics.

Metabolites: Breakdown products of chemicals.

Milligram (mg): One thousandth of a gram.

Pesticide: A substance that kills pests.

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References

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 1997. Managing Hazardous Materials Incidents. Volume III Medical Management Guidelines for Acute Chemical Exposures: Benzene. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 1997. Toxicological Profile for benzene. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.

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Where can I get more information?

ATSDR can tell you where to find occupational and environmental health clinics. Their specialists can recognize, evaluate, and treat illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances. You can also contact your community or state health or environmental quality department if you have any more questions or concerns.

For more information, contact:

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop F-32
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1-888-42-ATSDR (1-888-422-8737)
FAX:   (770)-488-4178
Email: [email protected]

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