Benzene, also known as benzol, is a liquid organic chemical compound that evaporates quickly and partly dissolves in water. It is colorless and highly flammable. It is also a known carcinogen, or cancer-causing substance. When added to petrol, it increases the octane rating and reduces the knocking noise in some engines.
Benzene’s sweet smell made it a favorite after-shave lotion in the 19th and early twentieth centuries. It was used as a popular method to decaffeinate coffee in the early 1900s. It was used as an industrial solvent to degrease metal prior to the 1920s. Even as recent as the 1970s hardware stores sold benzene in small cans. It was a very popular ingredient in paint strippers, rubber cement and other products containing hydrocarbon. As time passed, and research showed the carcinogenic properties of benzene, alternative methods were found for each of its many uses.
Today, benzene is still used to make some products, but not nearly as often. Currently it is used as a component for other useful chemicals. Most common uses include styrene, phenol and cyclohexane. Small amounts are used to make rubbers, lubricants, dyes, detergents, drugs, explosives, napalm and some pesticides.
Benzene Causes Cancer
When inhaled directly for any extended period, benzene can be fatal. Prolonged exposure to benzene was reported to cause cancer in the 1920s. Studies have shown benzene causes cancer in both genders of multiple species of laboratory animals as well as human beings. Benzene has also shown to cause irregular menstrual periods in women and decrease the size of their ovaries. Exposure to benzene is responsible for low birth weights, delayed bone formation and even bone marrow damage in laboratory animals.
Long term benzene exposure through the blood damages the bone marrow and can decrease red blood cell count, leading to anemia. It can cause excessive bleeding and depress the immune system, increasing the risk of infection. Benzene causes leukemia and other cancers of the blood; and has been linked to a rare form of kidney cancer. Benzene is also found in tobacco smoke.
Today, several tests can determine if someone has been exposed to benzene. The test to measure benzene in the breath must be done shortly after exposure for accurate results. Benzene disappears quickly from the blood as well. Blood tests must be done very soon after exposure to determine exposure levels. The body metabolizes benzene and metabolites such as trans, trans-muconic acid can be measured in the urine. This test must also been done shortly after exposure and is not a reliable indicator as to the exposure level of benzene. The same metabolites produced by benzene may be present from other sources.
OSHA set an acceptable exposure limit of benzene to maintain a healthier workplace for those working with substances containing benzene. Spills of ten pounds of benzene or more must be reported to the EPA in a timely manner. Even levels of benzene deemed safe should be avoided by whatever means necessary. Prolonged exposure to even small amounts can cause serious health risks.