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In the Air and In Our Foods: Benzene Dangers

In the Air and In Our Foods: Benzene Dangers 


The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines benzene as a chemical that is a colorless or light yellow liquid at room temperature, has a sweet odor and is highly flammable. And just why should you be familiar with this chemical? Not only is benzene ranked in the top 20 chemicals for production volume in the United States, many industries use benzene to make other chemicals that are used to make plastics, resins, styrofoam, nylon and synthetic fibers. Benzene is also used to make some types of lubricants, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides. If you use tobacco products, (yes you guessed it) you are also taking in large doses of benzene. If you live next to industrial factories, gas stations or hazardous waste/treatment plants, start educating yourself on the dangers of possible side effects.

How you could be exposed to benzene?

From the basics (foods, for example) properties in our lives that can be consumed, benzene can pose a great risk. Ingesting foods prove to be less of an exposure risk than inhaling it through the air (cigarette and tobacco smoke, forest fires, motor vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions, and gasoline fumes) and indoor air generally contains levels of benzene higher than those in outdoor air.

Foods that contain benzene:

The Department of Health and Human Services report that benzene can be found in foods such as soft drinks, fruit drinks, and drinks with ascorbic acid in aluminum containers.

What about lung inhalation?

Smokers take in 10 times the benzene amount than non-smokers. The levels rise dramatically when people inhale smoke indoors. The benzene in indoor air comes from products that contain benzene such as glues, paints, furniture wax, and detergents.

A German study in 2007 reported that older vehicles with plastic interiors (dashboard, console, seats, car frame in a lay frame), when left in the sun, will create a toxic greenhouse effect mixed with dangerous levels of benzene. The study warned drivers and passengers of vehicles about such chemical vapors and encouraged people to open windows and let the air conditioning run for a few minutes before entering the car to let the vapors escape the car. Benzene can also leak from underground storage tanks or from hazardous waste sites. It can pass into air from water and soil surfaces. Once in the air, benzene reacts with other chemicals and breaks down within a few days. Benzene in the air can also be deposited on the ground by rain or snow and seep into our water source (tap water and well water).

The CDC reports that individuals employed in industries that make or use benzene may be exposed to the highest levels of benzene. As many as 238,000 people may be occupationally exposed to benzene in the United States. These industries include: benzene production (petrochemicals, petroleum refining, and coke and coal chemical manufacturing), rubber tire manufacturing, and storage or transport of benzene and petroleum products containing benzene. Other workers who may be exposed to benzene include coke oven workers in the steel industry, printers, rubber workers, shoe makers, laboratory technicians, firefighters, and gas station employees.

Short-term effects (American Cancer Society)

Breathing in high doses of benzene may affect the central nervous system, which can lead to drowsiness, dizziness, headaches, tremors, confusion, and/or unconsciousness. Consuming foods or fluids contaminated with high levels of benzene can cause vomiting, stomach irritation, dizziness, sleepiness, convulsions, and rapid heart rate. In extreme cases, death may occur after inhaling or swallowing very high levels of benzene.

Exposure to benzene liquid or vapor may irritate the skin, eyes, and throat. Skin exposure to benzene may result in redness and blisters.

Long-term effects

Chronic and long-term exposure to benzene primarily harms the bone marrow, the soft, inner parts of bones where new blood cells are made.

This may result in:

➢ Anemia (a low red blood cell count), which can cause a person to feel weak and tired.

➢ A low white blood cell count, which can lower the body's ability to fight infections and may even be life-threatening.

➢ A low blood platelet count, which can lead to excessive bleeding.

➢ May harm reproductive organs. Some women who have breathed high levels of benzene for many months have had irregular menstrual periods and ovary shrinkage, but it is not known for certain if benzene caused these effects. It is not known if benzene exposure affects the fetus in pregnant women or fertility in men.

Medical tests to determine exposed to benzene?

Several tests can show whether you have been exposed to benzene, however, some must be performed shortly after benzene exposure and our bodies begin detoxifying benzene as soon as it is exposed, so levels can vary and are not exact measures. Though some blood tests may show benzene exposure, another great way to measure for the chemical is by calculating it in the breath, shortly after exposure.

In the body, benzene is converted to products called metabolites. Certain metabolites of benzene, such as phenol, muconic acid, and S-phenylmercapturic acid can be measured in the urine. The amount of phenol in urine has been used to check for benzene exposure in workers. The test is useful only when you are exposed to benzene in air at levels of 10 ppm or greater. However, this test must also be done shortly after exposure, and it is not a reliable indicator of how much benzene you have been exposed to, because phenol is present in the urine from other sources (diet, environment). Measurements of muconic acid or S phenylmercapturic acid in the urine are more sensitive and reliable indicators of benzene exposure. The measurement of benzene in blood or of metabolites in urine cannot be used for making predictions about whether you will experience any harmful health effects. Blood counts of all components of the blood and examination of bone marrow are used to determine benzene exposure and its health effects.

For people exposed to relatively high levels of benzene, complete blood analyses can be used to monitor possible changes related to exposure. However, blood analyses are not useful when exposure levels are low.

Protect Yourselves

First, if the benzene was released into the air, get fresh air by leaving the area where the benzene was released. Moving to an area with fresh air is a good way to reduce the possibility of death from exposure to benzene in the air. ◦ If the benzene release was outside, move away from the area where the benzene was released.

If the benzene release was indoors, get out of the building.

If you think you may have been exposed to benzene, you should remove your clothing, rapidly wash your entire body with soap and water, and get medical care as quickly as possible.  Then dispose of your clothing in a sealed plastic bag, and then into another one using tool handles.

As quickly as possible, wash any benzene from your skin with large amounts of soap and water. Washing with soap and water will help protect people from any chemicals on their bodies.

If your eyes are burning or your vision is blurred, rinse your eyes with plain water for 10 to 15 minutes. If you wear contacts, remove them after washing your hands and put them with the contaminated clothing. Do not put the contacts back in your eyes (even if they are not disposable contacts). If you wear eyeglasses, wash them with soap and water. You can put your eyeglasses back on after you wash them.

If you think your water supply may have benzene in it, drink bottled water until you are sure your water supply is safe.

If someone has swallowed benzene, do not try to make them vomit or give them fluids to drink. Also, if you are sure the person has swallowed benzene, do not attempt CPR. Performing CPR on someone who has swallowed benzene may cause them to vomit. The vomit could be sucked into their lungs and damage their lungs.

When in doubt, contact your health care professional as soon as possible.

Resources: ScientificAmerican.com, OSHA.Gov, The Center For Disease and Control Prevention, Resouce4Leukemia.com, Pondered.Org, BenzeneDangers.Com.

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