Benzene, sometimes called benzol, is a colorless liquid with a sweet smell. Benzene evaporates into air quickly and dissolves slightly in water. Benzene was first discovered and isolated from coal tar in the 1800s. Today, benzene is made mostly from the petroleum industry. Because of its wide use, benzene ranks in the top 20 in production volume for chemicals produced in the United States.
For most people, the level of exposure to benzene through food, beverages, or drinking water is not as high as through air. Drinking water typically contains less than 0.1 ppb benzene. Benzene has been detected in some bottled water, liquor, and food.
Eating foods or drinking water containing high levels of benzene can cause vomiting, irritation of the stomach, dizziness, sleepiness, convulsions, rapid heart rate, coma, and death. The health effects that may result from eating foods or drinking liquids containing lower levels of benzene are not known. If you spill benzene on your skin, it may cause redness and sores. Benzene in your eyes may cause general irritation and damage to your cornea.
Benzene causes problems in the blood. People who breathe benzene for long periods may experience harmful effects in the tissues that form blood cells, especially the bone marrow. These effects can disrupt normal blood production and cause a decrease in important blood components. A decrease in red blood cells can lead to anemia. Reduction in other components in the blood can cause excessive bleeding. Blood production may return to normal after exposure to benzene stops. Excessive exposure to benzene can be harmful to the immune system, increasing the chance for infection and perhaps lowering the body's defense against cancer.
Long-term exposure to benzene can cause cancer of the blood-forming organs. This condition is called leukemia. Exposure to benzene has been associated with development of a particular type of leukemia called acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The Department of Health and Human Services has determined that benzene is a known carcinogen (can cause cancer). Both the International Agency for Cancer Research and the EPA have determined that benzene is carcinogenic to humans.
Exposure to benzene may be harmful to the reproductive organs. Some women workers who breathed high levels of benzene for many months had irregular menstrual periods. When examined, these women showed a decrease in the size of their ovaries. However, exact exposure levels were unknown, and the studies of these women did not prove that benzene caused these effects. It is not known what effects exposure to benzene might have on the developing fetus in pregnant women or on fertility in men. Studies with pregnant animals show that breathing benzene has harmful effects on the developing fetus. These effects include low birth weight, delayed bone formation, and bone marrow damage.
We do not know what human health effects might occur after long-term exposure to food and water contaminated with benzene. In animals, exposure to food or water contaminated with benzene can damage the blood and the immune system and can cause cancer.
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