Benzene Exposure - An Overview

What is benzene?

Benzene is one of the most common chemicals in the United States. It is a colorless or lightly colored, sweet smelling chemical that is highly flammable, evaporates quickly into the air, and does not dissolve entirely in water.

Benzene is a naturally occurring chemical, as well as one that is the result of human actions. The chemical is naturally occurring in volcanoes and forest fires, as well as in crude oil, gasoline, and tobacco smoke. In relation to human actions, benzene is manufactured or used in the manufacture of various products, including chemical solvents, waxes, resins, paints, glues, plastics, and rubbers. It may also be found in the extraction of oils from nuts and seeds.

How are people exposed to benzene?

People may be exposed to benzene in a variety of ways. Low levels of benzene are often found in the outdoors; it comes from industrial emissions, the exhaust from motor vehicles, tobacco smoke, and from gas stations. Higher levels of benzene may be found in indoor air; benzene indoors may come from various paints, glues, furniture wax, or detergents.

Individuals who smoke tobacco products such as cigarettes, or who inhale secondhand smoke, are exposed to benzene. Exposure to tobacco smoke attributes for the largest percentage of benzene exposure in the U.S. In addition, individuals who work in industries that manufacture benzene, or that use benzene in the manufacture of other products, are also at risk for benzene exposure. Other occupations that may put people at risk for benzene exposure include printing, firefighting, shoe making, and laboratory technicians.

What are the health effects of benzene exposure?

Immediate symptoms of benzene exposure, from breathing it in or ingesting it, include dizziness, drowsiness, confusion, irregular or rapid heartbeat, tightness of the chest, tremors, vomiting, stomach irritation, convulsions, or death (for extremely high levels of exposure). If benzene comes into contact with an individual's skin or eyes, it may cause redness, irritation, or damage. Women who experience long-term (a year or more) exposure to benzene may experiences changes in their menstrual cycles; benzene has also been attributed to the shrinking of women's ovaries.

Long-term benzene exposure can have additional long-term effects. Benzene has been noted to adversely effect the blood and bone marrow of people who have been exposed for an extended duration. Benzene may cause a decrease in the production of red blood cells. This can be very problematic, as blood cells are used to carry oxygen throughout the body to tissue and organs. This change in red blood cells can lead to anemia.

In addition, benzene has been attributed to changes in the bone marrow (the spongy tissue within bones that makes white blood cells) that cause the irregular development of white blood cells, or limited development of white blood cells. These irregularities may be the result of leukemia, which is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Benzene has been determined to be a known carcinogen, meaning it is a known cancer-causing agent.

What should you do if you have a medical condition that may be linked to benzene exposure?

If you have been exposed to benzene for a long period of time (over one year) and have been diagnosed with a chronic health issue such as anemia or leukemia, it may be in your best interest to contact an attorney. An attorney who is knowledgeable about benzene and its effects can guide you through the legal process and help you determine what your next steps should be. A lawyer will be able to help you determine whether or not you can make a legal claim regarding your benzene exposure.

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