About half the national exposure to benzene comes from exposure to cigarette smoke.
What is benzene?
Benzene, also known as benzol, is a colorless liquid with a sweet odor and can be described as a volatile organic compound. The chemical symbol for benzene is C6H6. How might I be exposed to benzene?
Benzene is formed from both natural processes and human activities. It is produced from volcanoes and forest fires and is a natural part of crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke. Diesel exhaust contains benzene.
Benzene is one of the 20 most widely used chemicals in the United States. It is used to make other chemicals that are then used to make plastics, resins, nylon, and other synthetic fibers. It is used to make explosives, photographic chemicals, rubber, lubricants, dyes, adhesives, coatings, paint, detergents, drugs, and pesticides. It is used in printing, lithography, and food processing, and has been used as a solvent. It has been used as a gasoline additive in the past, but that use has been greatly reduced in the United States since the 1990s. The largest industrial use of toluene is in the production of benzene.
Benzene is found in the air, water, and soil. You can be exposed to small amounts of benzene outdoors, where the air can contain low levels from tobacco smoke, automotive service stations, vehicle exhaust, and industrial emissions. You can be exposed to higher levels of benzene near gas stations, hazardous waste sites, or industrial facilities. How can benzene affect my health?
You can be exposed to benzene indoors at home, where the air can contain higher levels of benzene than outdoor air, from products such as glue, paint, furniture wax, and detergent.
Approximately half the national exposure to benzene comes from smoking cigarettes or being exposed to cigarette smoke, indoors or outdoors. You can be exposed to benzene by drinking or using well water that has been contaminated by leaking underground gasoline storage tanks or hazardous waste sites, though those levels are usually less than those from industrial facilities and smoking cigarettes.
You can be exposed to higher than normal levels of benzene at work if you work at a facility that makes or uses benzene, including petroleum refining sites, pharmaceutical plants, petrochemical manufacturing facilities, rubber tire manufacturing facilities, or gas stations. You may be exposed if you are a steel worker, printer, shoemaker, laboratory technician, or firefighter.
Benzene is listed as a human carcinogen in the Thirteenth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program because it has been known to cause cancer. Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene can cause leukemia.
Breathing very high levels of benzene, or eating or drinking foods contaminated with high levels of benzene, can cause death. Eating or drinking foods contaminated with high levels of benzene can also cause vomiting and stomach irritation. Small amounts of benzene, which are not harmful, can be found in fruit, fish, vegetables, nuts, dairy products, beverages, and eggs.
Short-term exposure to high levels of benzene by breathing or eating affects the central nervous system and can cause paralysis, coma, convulsions, dizziness, sleepiness, rapid heart rate, tightness of the chest, tremors, and rapid breathing.
If you work at a facility that uses benzene, breathing high levels of benzene can cause irreversible brain damage, unconsciousness, cardiac arrest, blurred vision, headaches, tremors, confusion, and fatigue. In women, it can shrink ovaries and cause menstrual irregularity. Spilling benzene on your skin can cause redness, sores, scaling, and drying of the skin. If benzene contacts the eyes, it can cause irritation and damage to the cornea.
Long-term exposure to benzene can decrease red blood cells, leading to anemia. It can also cause excessive bleeding and affect the immune system, increasing the chance of infection.
If you think you have been exposed to benzene, contact your health care professional.
For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.
This description is based on the information found in the Web links listed with this topic.
Basic Information about Benzene in Drinking Water (Environmental Protection Agency)
Benzene (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)
Benzene. Haz-Map (National Library of Medicine)
Benzene. Hazardous Substances Data Bank (National Library of Medicine)
Benzene. ToxFAQs (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
Map of Releases of Benzene in the United States. TOXMAP (National Library of Medicine)
ToxGuide for Benzene (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) (PDF — 127 KB)
What Is Benzene? (Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center) (PDF — 244.60 KB)
Last Updated: February 10, 2016