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This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions about benzene and 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.
Benzene is a colourless liquid with a sweet odour. 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 fibres. 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. Back to Top
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 anaemia. 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 foetus 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. Back to Top
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 leukaemia, cancer of the blood-forming organs. Back to Top
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. Back to Top
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. Back to Top
Anaemia: 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.
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.
Animal testing is sometimes necessary to find out how toxic substances might harm people and how to treat people who have been exposed. Laws today protect the welfare of research animals and scientists must follow strict guidelines. Back to Top
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.
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