What is Benzene?
A colorless liquid with a sweet odor, benzene, or benzol, is an organic chemical compound that is a known carcinogen. It can be naturally produced by volcanos and forest fires—quickly evaporating once exposed to air. It is typically a by-product of coke and is used in many items that we find in everyday society. As an industrial chemical, it can be found in crude oil and gasoline and because it is a powerful solvent, industrial facilities will use it to clean and degrease large pieces of machinery.
Benzene was first identified in the 1800s, and throughout the 20th century, scientists and researchers not only investigated its uses, but also the many ways benzene could be produced. By the mid-1800s benzene was produced on an industrial scale using the “coal-tar” method—a method that involved extracting benzene from coal tar, a thick liquid that is a by-product of coal. Oil refineries, chemical plants, oil and gas wells, and steel mills are all industries in the United States where workers can suffer from benzene exposure. Since benzene is a by-product of coal, employees who work with or near coke batteries are at a higher risk for several forms of cancer such as acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) and multiple myeloma.
When coal is heated to temperatures close to 2,000°F in a closed, oxygen-deprived area, the coal turns into coke and releases chemical compounds in the form of vapors and gases. Known as “coke oven gas,” these vapors typically contain benzene, toluene, and xylene. These chemicals can then be sold to manufacturers to be used to make plastics, wood preservatives, paints, adhesives, explosives, gasoline, synthetic fibers, and rubbers. The remaining clean coke gas is processed and used in fuel and reheating furnaces and batteries.
Some of the earliest uses for benzene involved common household items. The sweet odor led to its use as after-shave lotion in the late 19th century. The turn of the 20th century saw the chemical used to decaffeinate coffee and was frequently used as an industrial solvent. The first major use as a solvent in the rubber industry began in the early 1900s and increased when toluene, one of the by-products produced in the coke ovens, was used to manufacture various explosives in World War I. Post-war, it was used as a solvent in many additional areas, including rubber goods, dry cleaning, petroleum products, blending of motor fuels, coatings and automobile manufacturing.
Benzene Industry and Professions
In 2015, the EPA estimated that 5 million Americans are at risk of benzene exposure and illness because of how much benzene is released into the air by the nation’s 149 oil refineries. Understandably, those working with and around benzene are at much greater risk of exposure as benzene is easily inhaled and can be absorbed through the skin if contact is made.
- Steel workers
- Refinery workers
- Shoe makers
- Lab technicians
- Gas-related industries
- Chemical plant workers
- Rubber industry
- Paper/pulp factory workers
- Dry cleaning
- Fire Fighters
Benzene Exposure and Injury
Products such as glues, furniture waxes, detergents, and paints may contain benzene and during use, may release it in gases or vapors. Water may become contaminated with benzene when underground storage tanks from hazardous waste sites are damaged and begin leaking.
When exposed, benzene disrupts the normal functions of cells and causes them to malfunction. It prevents the bone marrow from making enough red blood cells and changing the levels of antibodies to the point of losing white blood cells. This effect on the bone marrow can result in leukemia, specifically AML. Long-term exposure to benzene can result in excessive bleeding, anemia, and decreased immune response. Breathing in benzene causes drowsiness and dizziness, and can result in unconsciousness and death.
With both short- and long-term effects, benzene poisoning can have different results depending on an individual’s exposure levels and medical histories. Ingesting benzene through food or drink laced with high levels of the chemical compound can cause stomachache, vomiting, sleepiness, convulsions, and even death. Since the International Agency for Research on Cancer evaluated benzene in 1987 and concluded that there was an increase of leukemia in benzene workers, benzene has also been found to play a significant role in other cancers such as multiple myeloma, lung cancer, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The first documented case of leukemia caused by benzene exposure was in 1928, and by the late 1940s, documents from a toxicological profile by the American Petroleum Institute stated that the only safe level of concentration of benzene is zero. Despite this knowledge, benzene remained common in the industry. Workers have developed and died from leukemia as a result of fewer than five years of exposure or after more than three decades of exposure to benzene. Today, benzene ranks as one of the top 20 chemicals produced in the United States.
Toxic exposure to benzene can have devastating consequences on both the victim and their family. If you or a loved one has been affected by benzene poisoning, diagnosed with AML, multiple myeloma, or other benzene-caused cancer, please contact one of our toxic tort attorneys today. Our benzene lawyers have helped many people negligently exposed and harmed by these toxic fumes.
For more information
Facts About Benzene – CDC
American Cancer Society, “What is benzene?” (2013).
Centers for Disease Control, “Facts about benzene,” (2013).
Environmental Protection Agency, “Benzene,” (2013).
Occupational Safety & Health Administration, “Benzene.”
World Health Organization, “Exposure to benzene: A major public health concern,” (2010).