What Is Benzene?

Benzene is a chemical found in nature and manufactured products. It’s highly toxic to humans, which means it can harm you if you swallow it, touch it, or breathe it in.

It may appear colorless or slightly yellow in liquid form. It evaporates easily at room temperature and can dissolve somewhat in water.

Benzene has a slightly sweet smell, and it burns very easily.

Where Do You Find Benzene?

Things like volcanoes, forest fires, and even rotting food can put benzene into the air, water, and soil.

You could also find benzene in:

  • Crude oil
  • Gasoline
  • Cigarette smoke

Manufacturers also use it to make a wide range of products, including:

  • Plastics and resins
  • Nylon and other synthetic fibers
  • Lubricants
  • Rubbers
  • Medications
  • Pesticides
  • Dyes
  • Detergents

How Can Benzene Harm You?

Benzene is one of the substances that the Environmental Protection Agency calls a “known human carcinogen.” That means that it causes cancer in humans.

In particular, scientists believe that high levels of benzene can cause leukemia and possibly other blood-based cancers.

Benzene interferes with the way your cells work. It might damage your immune system by changing germ-fighting antibodies and white blood cells. Or it might cause your body to make fewer red blood cells. That can lead something called anemia. That's when your body doesn't make enough red blood cells to give your body enough oxygen to work well.

Benzene can also damage nerves and cause other problems with your nervous system. Exposure to high levels of it may make ovaries smaller and cause irregular periods.

How benzene can affect you depends on:

  • The amount you're exposed to
  • How it gets into your body (touch, swallow, or inhale)
  • How long you're exposed to it

Other things that play a role include your age, your overall health, and any other conditions you have.

How Could You Be Exposed to Benzene?

You're most likely to take in higher amounts of benzene at workplaces that use it. This might include:

  • Chemical plants
  • Shoe manufacturers
  • Oil and gas refineries
  • Manufacturers of dyes, detergents, drugs, or pesticides

Workplace exposure has dropped significantly over the past few decades thanks to federal and state regulations.

Continued

You can also inhale benzene from cigarettes, whether you use them yourself or just breathe in the secondhand smoke. This accounts for about half of all exposure to benzene in the United States.

You might also take it in from the fumes of things like:

  • Glues
  • Solvents
  • Paints
  • Gasoline
  • Some art supplies

This is especially likely if you’re in an area that doesn't have good air flow.

A 2021 report from Valisure found benzene in 78 sunscreens and sun-care products. A separate report in the same year found that 44 hand sanitizer products contained benzene.

How Will I Know If I've Been Exposed to Benzene?

If high levels of benzene have gotten into your body all at once, you might notice things like:

In serious cases, you may collapse, lose consciousness, or go into convulsions.

If you know you’ve been exposed to high levels of benzene:

  • Get fresh air right away.
  • Remove your clothes quickly and wash yourself all over with soap and water.
  • Use scissors to cut off any clothes that you would normally pull over your head to take off.
  • Dispose of your clothes in a sealed plastic bag.
  • If you notice blurred vision or burning in your eyes, flush them with plain water for 15 minutes.
  • If you wear contact lenses, take them out.
  • Get medical help as soon as possible.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 03, 2021

Sources

SOURCES:

Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments: “Benzene.”

American Cancer Society: “Benzene and Cancer Risk.”

Annual Review of Public Health: “Advances in Understanding Benzene Health Effects and Susceptibility.”

CDC: “Facts About Benzene.”

Valisure: “Valisure Detects Benzene in Hand Sanitizers,” "Valisure Detects High Levels Of Known Human Carcinogen Benzene In Several Sunscreen Products And Requests FDA Actions."

Vermont Department of Health: “Benzene in Air, Water, and Consumer Products.” 

Mayo Clinic: "Anemia."

© 2021 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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