• What are the Effects of Benzene on Human Health?

Safety

What are the Effects of Benzene on Human Health?

Mar 25 2015

Benzene is a naturally occurring component of crude oil, comprised entirely of carbon and hydrogen atoms. Because of this, it is classified as a hydrocarbon and is one of the most basic petrochemicals. However, while benzene is organically produced via volcanoes, forest fires and as a naturally occurring part of oil, gasoline and smoke, the amount produced by nature pales in comparison to that resulting from man-made activities.

The vast majority of benzene in our atmosphere comes about as a result of mining, industry or transport. It is released into the atmosphere via exhaust fumes from vehicles, or in industrial plants where it is used in the production of chemical properties such as detergents, dyes, paints, adhesives, lubricants, plastics, pesticides and fibres, among other substances. Alternatively there are plants which are dedicated to producing the substance itself.

What Characteristics Does Benzene Have?

Benzene is a colourless gas – making it difficult to detect via the naked eye – although it does have a distinctive smell. It is highly flammable and evaporates very quickly, though in gaseous form, it is heavier than normal air and as such may sink down into low-lying areas and valleys.

When it comes into contact with water, benzene will dissolve only very slightly. The majority of the substance will lie on top of the water, floating with it but still contaminating it marginally.

What are the Effects on Humans?

Although it is within the top 20 of most widely-used chemicals, benzene is still avoided in many practices because of its high carcinogenic properties. Everyday inhalation or exposure to the gas (such as walking around a city heavy with exhaust fumes, inhaling the benzene present in cigarette smoke, paint, glue or detergents) is not thought to be an immediate risk to human health.

However, a sudden exposure to extremely high levels of benzene can be fatal. This is very rare and only occurs generally because of a mass leakage or other accidental disaster. On the other hand, new studies have uncovered disconcerting data about the air quality levels of areas surrounding hazardous waste sites or industrial factories which use benzene in their processes.

Litigation against benzene suppliers, manufacturers and users has thrown up some concerning documents which link long-term exposure to the gas – even at relatively low levels – with terminal illnesses such as leukaemia and other forms of cancer. The Centre for Public Integrity (CPI) teamed up with two University research centres to campaign for the release of these previously-unseen damning documents. The result? 20,000 pages of documentation detailing the dangers of benzene on human health, freely searchable by anyone. To learn more about the specifics of these documents, the ensuing legislation which benzene companies will have to meet and other proposed solutions to the problem, read this article: Benzene - it's Time for Continuous, Real-time and Specific Monitoring.

Immediate Symptoms of Exposure to Benzene

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Palpitations
  • Uncontrollable trembling
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Stomach irritation
  • Vomiting
  • Unconsciousness
  • Death (though only at extreme concentrations)

Long-term Health Effects of Benzene Exposure

  • Decreased red blood cells, leading to anaemia
  • Excessive bleeding
  • Weakened immune system
  • Decreased ovary size
  • Irregular menstrual cycle
  • Bone marrow damage
  • Cancer, including leukaemia and cancers affecting young children

To ensure you minimise your exposure to benzene, do not live close by to a power plant which utilises the gas in its daily operations. If you work in such an industry, ensure your facility abides by the regulations set out in the above document and that benzene levels are kept at a minimum and harmless level.


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