The dangers of benzene are everywhere. The International Agency of Research on Cancer (IARC) lists benzene as 1 of 119 “carcinogenic to humans” agents. A carcinogen is defined as any substance or agent that tends to produce cancer. Industrial processes and consumer goods often use the benzene chemical.

Because of its widespread use, many individuals can face exposure to this substance both on and off the job.

What is Benzene and Where is it Found?

Avoid cigarettes and second-hand smoke

On OSHA’s Substance Data Sheet for benzene, it states:

  • Benzene is a clear, colorless liquid with a pleasant, sweet odor
  • Because it is a sweet odor, benzene does not provide adequate warning of its hazard
  • Also, many industrial processes contain benzene.
  • It is found in crude oil and therefore it is a major part of gasoline.
  • Although, most of the benzene in the environment comes from our use of petroleum products.
  • Your home can have benzene in glues, adhesives, cleaning products, paint strippers, and tobacco smoke.

The Effects of Overexposure to Benzene

Short-term (acute) overexposure:

If you are overexposed to high concentrations of benzene, above the levels where its odor is first recognizable, you may:

  • feel breathless, irritable, euphoric, or giddy
  • you may experience irritation in the eyes, nose, and respiratory tract
  • you may develop a headache, feel dizzy, nauseated, or intoxicated
  • severe exposures may lead to convulsions and loss of consciousness

Long-term (chronic) exposure:

Repeated or prolonged exposure to benzene, even at relatively low concentrations, may result in:

  • various blood disorders, ranging from anemia to leukemia, an irreversible, fatal disease
  • also, many blood disorders associated with benzene exposure may occur without symptoms
Benzene gas in fuel
Gas monitoring for confined space

Best Practices to Reduce Exposure to Benzene

SCBA equipment

OSHA has set the exposure limit to 1ppm for an 8-hour workday and 5ppm exposure limit for a 15-minute frame. The exposure to benzene is by gasoline and its vapors for most people, however, some may be exposed to it elsewhere.

To reduce your exposure to benzene, use the following tips:

  • Do not breathe in the vapors of gasoline and fuel your vehicle in a well-ventilated area.
  • Shorten your stay as much as possible in areas with excessive automobile exhaust.
  • Avoid contaminated water.
  • Avoid smoking and second-hand smoke.
  • Practice good hygiene and protect your skin such as washing your hands prior to eating as this can reduce the chance of exposure through ingestion and limiting skin exposure can reduce the absorption of benzene through the skin.
  • Above all, at work use engineering controls to reduce or eliminate the exposure to benzene. If exposure is still over the limit, respirators must be worn that are sufficient enough to protect from overexposure.

Summary

Off the job it is much easier to reduce your exposure and lessen the dangers of benzene, however doing so at work could be more difficult if you do not understand the dangers. Talk with a supervisor or safety representative to find out the sources of benzene on the job as well as the safeguards implemented to protect against overexposure because some of the biggest hazards at work are the ones you are not aware of.

Discussion point: Discuss the sources of benzene in the workplace and the associated safeguards.

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