Benzene & Cancer

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Benzene is a chemical that has been linked to cancer in human and animal studies. This lesson teaches you what this cancer is, what happens in this type of cancer, and how benzene is linked to it.

What is Benzene?

If you live around a coal plant or oil refinery, you might be at risk. If you work as a gas station attendant, you might be at risk too. If you handle a lot of petroleum-based substances as part of your job, then you might also be at risk.

At risk of what? Well, you might be at risk of the troubling health effects of prolonged benzene exposure. Benzene is a chemical made of hydrogen and carbon that's derived from oil and coal. It's used in everything from paints to inks to plastics. In some ways, it's almost unavoidable in the modern age. The problem is that it has also been linked to cancer.

Benzene is composed of carbon (gray spheres) and hydrogen (white spheres).

Benzene and Cancer

The type of cancer benzene has been linked to is called leukemia. Leuko- means white, and -emia means blood. So literally, leukemia means white blood. You'll understand why in a second.

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood-forming tissues and organs, namely that of the bone marrow. The bone marrow is critical for the production of red blood cells (which carry oxygen), platelets (which help your blood clot), and white blood cells.

Leukemia namely involves your white blood cells, at least to begin with. Normally, white blood cells are very important for you body's self-defense. These are the kinds of cells that fight off viruses, bacteria, and parasites that try to harm you.

In leukemia, the bone marrow produces white blood cells that do not function correctly. Instead of fighting off invaders like they should, these white blood cells simply crowd out the bone marrow. Because they crowd the bone marrow, they minimize the bone marrow's ability to produce healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. Just imagine these unhealthy white blood cells as duds. These duds crowd out the factory they work in (the bone marrow), displace normal workers, and prevent remaining healthy workers from doing their job.

Since there are fewer healthy white blood cells, a person is more susceptible to infections. Because red blood cells aren't formed properly, a person becomes anemic. And since platelets aren't made very well, a person is at greater risk of bleeding out if they injure themselves.

Note the shortness of breath and fatigue, which are due to anemia. The easy bruising and bleeding occurs due to a reduction of platelets. The frequent infections are a result of decreased numbers of normal white blood cells.

How Does Benzene Cause Leukemia?

No one knows exactly how benzene leads to leukemia. One hypothesis goes something like this: Benzene is converted in the liver to various secondary chemicals. One of these chemicals hitches a ride in the bloodstream to the bone marrow. Here, this secondary chemical is further converted to other substances, which results in the formation of free radicals. Surely you've heard how free radicals are bad for you, right? Well, the free radicals then cause damage to the DNA of the immature blood cells of the bone marrow. Since the genetic code is damaged, the white blood cells do not function properly, resulting in leukemia.

Lesson Summary

Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene has been linked to cancer in people. Benzene is a hydrocarbon derived from coal and oil and found in many common products today. The cancer it is linked to is called leukemia. This cancer involves abnormal white blood cells that crowd out your bone marrow. Because the bone marrow is responsible for the production of healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets, leukemia leads to:

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