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What Is Benzene?

Posted by EHS Insight Resources on September 18, 2019 at 12:34 PM

Chemical safety in the workplace is no small undertaking, especially if you work in high-risk industries like oil and gas, construction, pharmaceuticals, and, of course, the chemical industry.

One major chemical concern is benzene, a highly flammable liquid compound known to cause cancer.

What is benzene and how do you watch out for it? Here’s a quick guide to understanding what benzene is and the risks it poses to your workforce.

What Is Benzene?

Benzene is a colorless or light-yellow liquid which evaporates quickly when exposed to air, though it doesn’t dissolve well in water and tends to float on top of it. It is highly flammable and has a slightly sweet odor.

It is produced as part of natural and man-made processes. For example, benzene is a natural component in crude oil, which is the main source of benzene today. It’s also found in gas emissions from forest fires, volcanoes, and cigarette smoke.

How Is It Used?

Benzene is among the top 20 most widely used chemicals in the United States.

It’s used mainly as a starting chemical in the process of creating other products, usually to create chemicals which will later be used for other products. Common examples include:

  • Plastics
  • Nylon
  • Resins
  • Dyes
  • Lubricants
  • Synthetic fibers
  • Detergents
  • Rubbers
  • Pesticides
  • Gasoline

It’s used primarily as a solvent in the pharmaceutical industry and can be found in certain drugs. Historically, benzene was also used as an industrial solvent and gasoline additive, though these uses have gone down dramatically in the past several decades.

How Are People Exposed to Benzene?

Since benzene evaporates quickly with air contact, most people are exposed to benzene by breathing it in. Benzene can also be absorbed through the skin during contact with a liquid source containing benzene, but this is less common.

The highest exposure levels have historically been in the workplace in industries that work with benzene. That said, many industries are reducing their use of benzene, so this has gone down in recent years.

The average person is more likely to be exposed to benzene by breathing in tobacco smoke, specifically through cigarettes. In fact, among smokers, 90% of benzene exposure comes from inhaling cigarette smoke.

If you needed a reason to quit, this is it.

However, benzene is also found in gasoline and can be inhaled if someone inhales gasoline fumes. It can also be found in glues, adhesives, paint strippers, and cleaning products.

The Risks of Benzene Exposure

To put it simply, benzene works by preventing your cells from doing their jobs.

The seriousness of benzene poisoning depends on the amount of benzene, the route of exposure, and how long a person was exposed, though age and pre-existing medical conditions can also exacerbate the issue.

Short-term exposure can cause drowsiness, headaches, and dizziness. Ingestion of large amounts can cause vomiting, seizures, and loss of consciousness. It also weakens the immune system by changing the levels of antibodies in the blood.

Long-term exposure is known to cause blood disorders in humans. That’s because benzene specifically affects your bone marrow, which is responsible for producing blood cells. Chronic exposure can cause aplastic anemia, excessive bleeding, and raises your risk of leukemia.

Keeping Your Workplace Safe Every Day

We know that benzene is just one small part of the chemical hazards you have to handle every day, even if the health risks of benzene exposure are huge. You need a way to stay on top of your responsibilities and keep your workers safe from a bevy of potential health and chemical hazards. 

Further Reading: What You Need to Know About Hazard Communication

Topics: Workplace Health and Safety, Oil & Gas, Chemicals

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