• What are the Effects of Benzene on the Environment?

What are the Effects of Benzene on the Environment?

Mar 26 2015 Read 4668 Times

Benzene is a colourless, sweet-smelling gas which is highly flammable and is a natural constitution of gas, crude oil and smoke. Though it is formed organically, the vast majority of the benzene in our environment is a result of human activity.

As well as being produced directly by certain plants, it is also used as an intermediate in creating other chemicals. Primarily, it is used to make nylon fibres, which are then used to create plastics and textiles. However, it is also used extensively in the production of dyes, paints, detergents, drugs, pesticides, explosives and rubbers.

Furthermore, the combustion of materials in industrial plants are one of the leading causes of benzene, as are the exhaust fumes which come from the billions of cars on our roads worldwide. As such, it is no surprise that benzene is one of the top 20 most used chemicals and is present in our environment all of the time, indoors as well as outdoors. What effect does this have on it?

The Harmful Effects of Benzene

The general levels of benzene, brought about car exhausts, paints, dyes and the suchlike, pose negligible risks to the environment. Because of its propensity to react with other elements in the air, it is most often quickly diffused within a few days of exposure and therefore it is virtually harmless. Of course, a mass leakage would cause volatile levels of the gas, but such an occurrence is rare.

Similarly, normal concentrations of benzene do not affect aquatic flora and fauna to a great degree. It does have a low toxicity level which can affect underwater organisms, and it does remain present for longer in soil and groundwater (sometimes weeks) than it does in the air. However, again, barring a significant spill or accidental release of the substance into a body of water, the harmful effects on the environment are not worrisome.

However, these “normal” levels of concentration do not take into account sites where benzene is used in high quantities on an ongoing basis. Industrial plants or other facilities which either manufacture or utilise benzene in their daily activities can have dangerous levels of the substance present in their atmosphere, which could prove hazardous not only to the employees working there but also to the wider environs. Contamination of local water supplies, soil and the air and the knock-on effect this pollution would have on the flora and fauna in the area could be higher than previously imagined.

A Cause for Concern

Recently, a triumvirate of concern bodies pushed for more transparency in the benzene industry. The Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, The Graduate Centre of the City of New York University and the Centre for Public Integrity (CPI) joined forces in order to pressurise the government into making public a number of documents pertaining to the harmful effects of benzene.

It has surfaced that due to growing litigation against benzene companies, research was undertaken to both determine the true effects of the substance on the environment and simultaneously to downplay the seriousness of these effects. This article, Benzene - it's Time for Continuous, Real-time and Specific Monitoring, looks in detail at the revelations which this documentation uncovered. It also discusses the specifics of these harmful effects, as well as suggesting solutions to curbing future damage done by the gas. For additional information, read: What are the effects of benzene on human health?

Image Source: Exhaust fumes in Kiel
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