Education

Benzene is a colorless, flammable liquid with a sweet odor. It is one of the most widely used chemicals in the United States. It is used mainly as a starting material in making other chemicals, including plastics, lubricants, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides. Historically, it was also commonly used as an industrial solvent (a substance that can dissolve or extract other substances) and as an intentional ingredient in consumer products.

How are people exposed to benzene?

People are exposed to benzene by breathing in air containing benzene and by benzene absorption through the skin. People can be exposed to benzene at work, in the general environment, and through the use of some consumer products. The highest exposures have typically been in workplace, although these have decreased greatly over the last several decades due to federal and state regulations. Some other exposures have also gone down over time, such as the amount of benzene allowed in consumer products. In 1978, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission effectively banned the use of benzene as an intentional ingredient in consumer products.

Workplace exposures

Workers in the rubber industry, oil refineries, chemical plants, barge workers, and gasoline-related industries are at the greatest risk of benzene exposure. Benzene is also used to make some types of lubricants, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides. Other people who may be exposed to benzene at work include steel workers, printers, lab technicians, auto mechanics, plumbers, and painters. Federal regulations currently limit exposure to benzene in the workplace.

Does benzene cause cancer?

Benzene is a known human carcinogen based upon scientific studies of humans and lab animals.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies benzene as “carcinogenic to humans”.

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) formed from parts of several US government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified benzene as “known to be a human carcinogen.”

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies benzene as a known human carcinogen.

Benzene Regulation

Several government agencies regulate benzene levels and exposures.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) is the federal agency responsible for health and safety regulations in most workplaces. OSHA limits exposure to benzene in the air in most workplaces to 1 ppm (part per million) during an average workday and a maximum of 5 ppm over any 15-minute period.

When working at potentially higher exposure levels, OSHA requires employers to provide personal protective equipment such as respirators, although NIOSH will not certify chemical cartridge respirators for use with benzene vapors.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has effectively banned the use of benzene as an intentional ingredient in consumer products.

SOURCE: American Cancer Society, http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/intheworkplace/benzene