Benzene Exposure: Symptoms & Health Effects

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Are you worried about benzene exposure? If you are, then this lesson will teach you about the signs and symptoms to look out for in the near and long term as a result of high levels of benzene exposure.

What is Benzene?

It's likely you don't even realize it, but many of the products you use, such as paint and adhesives, contain products derived from oil. One of these is a hydrocarbon chemical called benzene, which is comprised of two elements, hydrogen (hydro-) and carbon. Although it's only made from two things, it unfortunately causes more than a couple problems when it comes to our health.

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

Benzene Exposure via Inhalation

The various signs and symptoms a person can have as a result of benzene exposure depend on exactly how they have been exposed. If a person breathes in a lot of benzene, they will experience any combination of the following:

  • Confusion
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Fast and/or irregular heartbeat
  • Tremors
  • Unconsciousness

Depending on how much the person has breathed in, these signs can occur within minutes to hours after the exposure. At high exposure levels, death can also result. A person can be exposed to benzene through the air through various means. For instance, someone living next to a coal plant or oil refinery may be at risk. Even people living far away from these places may breathe in high levels of benzene at a gas station. People who, for whatever reason, breathe in a lot of car exhaust are at risk too.

Benzene Exposure via Ingestion

But that's not the only way we can be exposed to benzene. If a person eats or drinks something that contains high levels of benzene, they can also experience dizziness, and a rapid or irregular heartbeat. Other symptoms include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Convulsions
  • Sleepiness

Once again, at very high levels of exposure through food or drink, a person can also die.

You might be wondering how someone may eat or drink benzene. Obviously, accidental ingestion of substances that contain benzene, such as inks, dyes, detergents, and paints can do the trick. However, even normal food may pose a danger.

For instance, beverages that contain ascorbic acid (vitamin C) as well as one of two preservatives, sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate, may form benzene if exposed to specific quantities of heat and/or light. An unsuspecting person may then drink soda that's contaminated with the newly formed benzene and suffer the ill-effects. Now you know what to look for on the ingredient label of your favorite soda! To be fair, most companies have worked to reduce their product's benzene level to 5 parts per billion (ppb) or less, the federal limit for drinking water.

Benzene Exposure via External Contact

Even just have skin contact with benzene can be bad for you. Symptoms include:

  • Severe eye irritation
  • Moderate skin irritation
  • Excitation
  • Pale skin that eventually experiences flushing
  • Chest constriction and breathlessness

Health Effects

All of the aforementioned signs and symptoms are more or less immediate signs of benzene exposure. However, benzene can also have long lasting health effects stemming from long-term exposure (a year or more) such as :

  • A reduction in the number of red blood cells, causing anemia.
  • Excessive bleeding after tissue trauma
  • Cancer of the blood forming organs, i.e., leukemia.
  • Immune system suppression. This means benzene makes it more likely a person will fall ill from an infectious agent.
  • Irregular menstrual periods and reduction in size of a woman's ovaries. It is unclear if benzene causes any harm to a developing human, but has shown to do so in animal studies.

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