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
- Cigarette smoke
Manufacturers also use it to make a wide range of products, including:
- Plastics and resins
- Nylon and other synthetic fibers
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Some art supplies
This is especially likely if you’re in an area that doesn't have good air flow.
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:
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sleepiness or confusion
- Pale or red-dotted skin
- Fast or skipping heartbeat
- Burning eyes or blurred vision
- Trembling in hands or elsewhere
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.