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Benzene Exposure: Sources, Risks, and Management

An image of the chemical compound of benzene Studies estimate that nine million people around the world die every year from pollution. That’s not surprising, considering the numerous sources of various toxic chemicals today. One such chemical is benzene, which has caught the eye of health bodies worldwide because of its multiple health risks. This article reviews the sources of benzene in the environment, the health risks associated with benzene, and the steps for managing benzene exposure.

What Is Benzene?

Benzene is a colorless petroleum-based chemical that is liquid at room temperature. Other notable physical properties of benzene are its high flammability, volatility, and sweet odor. This chemical is not soluble in water. Benzene is among the 20 most commonly used chemicals in the US, and it is often used in industry.

Sources of Benzene

There are multiple sources of benzene, through both natural and man-made processes. Below, we consider some of the most significant sources in the United States today.

Gas Stoves

One of the most typical sources of benzene in households is gas ovens and stoves. Research reveals that natural gas stoves in homes leak benzene alongside at least eleven other harmful air pollutants. The most interesting thing about the research is that these gas stoves can emit benzene even when turned off. Further, studies suggest that having a gas stove can cause concentrations similar to tobacco smoke. Considering more than a third of American homes have gas stoves, this is a significant source of exposure to the chemical.

Cigarette Smoke

Tobacco smoke accounts for nearly half of benzene exposure in the United States. In the immediate surrounding environment where there is active cigarette smoking, this chemical's levels can be multiple times more than normal. Among active smokers, about 90 percent of exposure to this chemical is from smoking.

Industrial Products

A few decades ago, benzene use was largely used as an industrial solvent. While its use for that purpose is no longer as widespread, some companies still use it as a constituent of solvents used in paints and lacquers. People that work at oil refineries, steel factories, gas stations, chemical plants, and companies that produce detergents, dyes, pesticides, and rubber are at an increased risk of exposure.

Volcanoes and Forest Fires

These are two typical natural processes that produce benzene. While many Americans don’t have to worry about volcanoes, the risk of exposure is high in regions where there are active volcanoes. In like fashion, most Americans don’t have to worry too much about forest fires, considering forest burning is usually done away from residential areas. Still, the air around where forests are burning has higher benzene concentration than normal, and people around that region are at increased risk of exposure.

Contaminated Food and Water

While this is an unlikely source for many, benzene can be found in foods and water near the region of waste sites and underground storage tanks that contain the chemical. However, benzene concentrations in these foods and water are low and only present a challenge when the person is already exposed to high levels.

Health Risks of Long-Term Benzene Exposure

As is expected from a chemical pollutant, there are several health risks associated with benzene exposure. They are as follows:

Causes Cancer

An image of a blood test for leukemiaThis is the most researched health risk associated with benzene exposure. Studies confirm that benzene is a carcinogen. The World Health Organization notes that there is no safe exposure level to benzene and has identified that the chemical can cause different types of cancers, including leukemia, myeloma, and lymphoma. The risk of developing these cancers is higher with long-term exposure.

Harms Bone Marrow

The bone marrow is the site of the production of blood cells. Long-term exposure to benzene has been found to harm the bone marrow. By implication, exposure can limit the production of blood cells and cause different health conditions. One such condition is anemia, which results in a reduction in the red blood cells in the body. This chemical can also interfere with the number of circulating white blood cells, which reduces the ability of the body to defend itself from infection and foreign invaders. Platelets are also affected, and this can result in excessive bleeding.

Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS)

This condition is an adrenal dysfunction where the body’s stress response cannot cope with chronic life stressors. While there is no direct link between adrenal fatigue and benzene, one of the causes of AFS is toxin exposure. This is because of a dysregulation of the Detoxification circuit of the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response, which is the mechanism that helps the body cope with stress.

The Detoxification circuit is one of the six NEM circuits, spanning several organs and systems in the body. When this circuit is overworked due to chronic benzene exposure, adrenal fatigue may set in, opening the door to several other health conditions.

Affect Women’s Reproductive Health

Researchers have found that women who inhaled high levels of benzene for multiple months noticed irregular periods. Medical testing also shows a decrease in the ovary size of these women. There have not been enough studies to elucidate the role benzene exposure plays on the fetus and in men’s fertility. Nonetheless, considering its propensity to affect the reproductive organs, exposure is likely to adversely impact both pregnant women and men’s fertility.

Steps to Take After Acute Benzene Exposure

You might be exposed to benzene by swallowing it, touching it, or inhaling it. While chronic exposure is something to identify sources of and avoid, acute exposure calls for first aid. After acute exposure to high levels of benzene, there are a few things you can do to manage the situation. They are highlighted below.

Get Fresh Air

If you suspect you have inhaled benzene, leave the area of contamination immediately and get fresh air. In emergency cases, when it is difficult to leave the building where you were exposed, try to move to a room with fresher air.

Remove Exposed Clothing

After excluding yourself from the exposure site, quickly remove any exposed clothing. When doing this, try as much as possible not to pull the contaminated clothing over your head to prevent further risk of inhalation. The best approach, in this case, would be to cut off the contaminated clothing and remove from the body.

Wash Yourself

After removing all contaminated clothing, wash the exposed skin with a lot of soap and warm water. If you notice irritation in the eye or blurring of vision, wash your eyes with a lot of water for about 15 minutes. Remember to remove any contacts or glasses before washing your eyes. And after proper cleansing, do not return contacts to your eyes, although glasses can be safely used. In cases of benzene ingestion, wash your mouth thoroughly with water for 15 minutes.

Carefully Discard Benzene-Exposed Clothing

An image of biohazard trash bags full of benzene-contaminated clothingThe next step is to dispose of the benzene-contaminated clothing into a plastic bag. Ensure you do not touch the contaminated areas of the cloth. If you’re unsure of the contaminated portions of the cloth or you cannot safely touch the clothing without coming in contact with the contaminated areas, you can use rubber gloves or tongs to lift the clothing into the plastic bag. Aside from the clothing, be sure to discard other materials that may have come in contact with benzene.

The bag used for disposal should be a plastic bag, and you should seal it after disposal. You can place the bag in another plastic bag and keep it away from other people. Leave disposal of the plastic bag to the health personnel.

Seek Medical Attention

While this is the last step stated, it can also be the first step depending on the circumstances. If you can, call 911 immediately after suspecting exposure to this chemical. You should also seek medical attention if a person is unconscious from exposure. Either way, ensure you seek medical attention at the first available moment.

While waiting for medical assistance, never attempt to induce vomiting, either on yourself or someone else. Also, do not perform CPR on someone you know who has ingested the chemical, as this may cause them to vomit and lead to the vomitus entering and subsequently damaging their lungs.

Preventing Benzene Exposure

Below are tips on preventing benzene exposure in the first place:

  • Quit smoking and stay away from environments contaminated with tobacco smoke.
  • Keep your kitchens and homes well-ventilated. You can use a ventilation fan, exhaust hood, air purifier, or even a simple fan blowing air out of the window.
  • As much as possible, stay away from the exhaust fumes of automobiles.
  • Limit contact with fuel when pumping your car, and generally limit your time in gas stations.
  • Drink clean and pure water.
  • Always use protective equipment when handling solvents or chemicals that contain benzene.

Final Thoughts

Benzene is a chemical that can be released into the environment through various man-made and natural processes and sources, like gas stoves. Studies show this chemical is a carcinogen and can cause other health conditions. Therefore, utmost care is required to avoid exposure. Also, considering the various possible contamination sources, it is essential to know the steps to take upon exposure and how to prevent subsequent contamination.

For more information about benzene and its health impact, the team at Dr. Lam Coaching can help. We offer a free, no-obligation phone consultation at +1 (626) 571-1234 where we will privately discuss your symptoms and various options. You can also send us a question through our Ask The Doctor system by clicking here.

© Copyright 2023 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Not at all, and this is one of the worrying details about benzene emitted from gas stoves. While these stoves unsurprisingly release chemicals while they burn, they can also release benzene while off. This means simply having them in your household increases the risk of benzene exposure.

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