Benzene and Disease – What You Should Know!

The first article in this three part series about benzene gave a good overview of what benzene is, and what it’s being used for. But we also discussed benzene has a dangerously dark side to it – one that causes illness, disease and even death.

The first question that must be asked is this; “How much benzene is considered safe, and how much is dangerous?”

The answer will surely surprise you.

According to The American Petroleum Institute, “…it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero.”

That doesn’t leave us much wiggle room now, does it?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states the maximum allowable amount of benzene in workroom air during a weekly 8-hour workday (40 hours) is 1 ppm – one part per million.

“The employer shall assure that no employee is exposed to an airborne concentration of benzene in excess of one part of benzene per million parts of air (1 ppm) as an 8-hour time-weighted average.”

Section 1910.1028(c)(1)

How much is one part per million? It’s the equivalent of a single drop of water diluted into 50 liters of gasoline.

More benzene concentrated in the air than this, and safety measures must be observed and taken, including air filtration and special breathing equipment.

Metabolized in the liver, benzene appears to be cumulative in its destructive abilities. The more exposure you get, the worse off you’ll be. Poisoning is dependent upon the amount of benzene you are exposed to, whether the benzene is in liquid or gaseous form, how you are exposed to it, and the length of time of benzene exposure. Age and preexisting medical conditions also play a role in the severity of the symptoms.

It’s difficult to know precisely how much benzene is in your system. Quickly metabolized, it turns into metabolic by-products within the body.

The standard tests incorporating blood, urine, and breath measurements can only give an approximate measurement, and valid only for a limited time after direct or indirect exposure.

A Host of Truly Awful Diseases

Benzene is primarily a carcinogenic – which means it is a direct, root cause of cancer. Specifically…

  • Benzene is documented and well known to cause bone marrow failure. This in turn can cause anemia, bone marrow abnormalities, damage to the immune system, loss of white blood cells and leukemia – including these specific diseases:
    • AML-Acute Myeloid Leukemia
    • MDS-Myelodysplastic Syndrome
    • NHL-Non-Hodgkins’ Lymphoma
    • CLL-Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
  • In women, long term benzene exposure can lead to irregular menstrual periods and a decrease in the size of their ovaries, which adversely affects fertility.
  • Benzene exposure has been directly linked to birth defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly.
  • Men exposed to high levels of benzene are more prone to an abnormal amount of spermal chromosomes.


Symptoms of Benzene Exposure

Breathing benzene can cause all of the following, sometimes in only a few minutes of exposure:

  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Tremors
  • Unconsciousness
  • Death

Ingesting benzene (either through food or drink) can have the following effects:

  • Convulsions
  • Dizziness
  • Irritation of the stomach
  • Sleepiness
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Vomiting
  • Death

Direct exposure to benzene can cause injury to the eyes, skin, or lungs through tissue injury and irritation.

Bad News – There’s No Antidote for Benzene Poisoning

Unfortunately, there is currently no specific antidote for benzene poisoning. If you are exposed to benzene, treatment is usually supportive medical care and hospitalization. However, the first thing you should do if exposed to benzene is get out into a clean environment!

  • If benzene is spilled on your clothing – get rid of the clothing. Do not pull any contaminated garments over your head – the benzene can get into your lungs and cause vomiting.
  • Thoroughly wash your entire body with soap and water.
  • If your eyes are burning or your vision is blurred, rinse with plain water for 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Do NOT induce vomiting if benzene is ingested, nor try and perform CPR. CPR can induce vomiting, which causes the benzene to be sucked up into the lungs along with the vomit.

And of course, always get medical attention as soon as possible after exposure.