Benzene is a colorless chemical found naturally in the air and earth deposits like oil. It is also one of the most frequently used chemicals in U.S. industry and is used to make plastics and petroleum products, drugs, detergents and other chemicals.
Benzene enters the air through both natural occurrences, such as forest fires, and human activity, such as burning fossil fuels. Common sources of benzene that lead to human exposure include emissions from burning oil and coal, motor vehicle exhaust, and smoke from cigarettes.
Exposure to benzene in an industrial or commercial setting can have serious health consequences, some of which may be life-threatening.
Effects of Benzene Exposure
Exposure to benzene can have several harmful effects on individuals. The severity of the injuries caused by exposure to benzene depends on the amount of benzene that individuals are exposed to and the length of time that they are exposed.
Short term exposure to benzene can lead to:
- Irritation of the respiratory tract
- Irritation of eyes, skin and mucous membranes
- Abnormal heart rhythm
- Loss of consciousness
The long-term exposure to benzene has been linked to life threatening side effects such as changes in bone marrow production. Changes in blood cell production may lead to certain types of anemia and blood cell cancer, most notably aplastic anemia and different forms of leukemia.
Regulation of Benzene
Regulations set up by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are designed to monitor the use of benzene both in and outside of industrial settings to ensure that the levels of benzene in the air, land and water do not reach high enough levels to result in harm. The EPA regulates levels in the air, water and land by limiting and monitoring industrial spills and contamination that may occur.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, has also set regulations regarding the levels of benzene allowed in the workplace and monitor benzene levels by air quality testing. OSHA limits of benzene exposure are listed as 1 part benzene per million parts air (ppm), averaged over an 8-hour day, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Workers who are exposed to benzene are required to wear respirators and other protective gear but some recent studies have indicated that benzene may still have some harmful effects below the 1 ppm standard set up by OSHA.
Benzene Cancer Risks
The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, has classified benzene as a Group A human carcinogen and the Department of Health and Human Services has indicated that benzene causes cancer in humans.
Benzene has been particularly linked to an increased risk of leukemia, which is a cancer of the bone marrow. The bone marrow is responsible for white blood cell formation in the body. Those most likely to be exposed to high levels of benzene, causing benzene poisoning, are those who work in the manufacturing of benzene or those who work in an industry that uses benzene in their products.
Benzene is used in that manufacturing of various products including pesticides, detergents, nylon, synthetic fibers, lubricants, rubbers, dyes, drugs, resins, and plastics. Benzene is also found in tobacco smoke.
Tests for benzene exposure in humans, sampling blood or urine are of little help as they are only valid for a very short period and after large exposure. They will not be able to accurately validate low-level or chronic exposure and testing for benzene toxic effects must be done by monitoring other laboratory values such as blood counts.
Benzene Exposure Compensation
People or loved ones of those harmed by benzene exposure may be eligible for compensation for medical costs and other damages.
If you or a family member has been exposed to benzene and suffered adverse side effects, you should contact a physician immediately. In some cases, victims of benzene exposure have been able to obtain compensation for their injuries, but you should seek legal assistance before signing anything.
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