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Benzene Exposure Symptoms

Benzene is a chemical found in car exhaust and cigarette smoke. It is also used in manufacturing. Immediate benzene exposure symptoms range from skin irritation to difficulty breathing. It can be fatal at high levels. Long-term exposure to benzene can lead to non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other cancers.

Last Modified: September 7, 2023
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What Are Immediate Signs of Benzene Exposure?

Immediate benzene exposure symptoms differ depending on the type and length of exposure. Signs can include irritation of the skin and respiratory system. People who breathe in or consume large amounts of benzene may notice symptoms within minutes or over the course of several hours. Inhaling or ingesting large amounts of benzene have been fatal in some cases.

Immediate symptoms of exposure to benzene include:
  • Blisters
  • Confusion
  • Convulsions
  • Death (at very high levels)
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Headaches
  • Irritation of the eyes, skin and upper respiratory tract (after inhalation)
  • Irritation of the stomach and esophagus (after ingestion)
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Skin redness
  • Sleepiness
  • Tremors
  • Unconsciousness
  • Vomiting

Benzene doesn’t stay in the body very long. The chemical breaks down quickly, and its metabolites leave the body via urine after about 24 hours. Doctors can test for benzene exposure, but they must give the test immediately after exposure and cannot predict if any future health effects will occur.

Benzene is a chemical created through natural processes such as forest fires, and human activities such as plastics manufacturing, cigarette smoking or driving a car. Exposure to benzene alongside ethanol, as with alcohol consumption, can increase negative benzene exposure symptoms. Remove any contaminated clothing and immediately seek medical attention if you think you’ve been exposed to benzene.

Benzene Exposure Linked to Cancer

People exposed to high levels of benzene in the air are more likely to develop leukemia, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Multiple studies across various industries and locations found that exposure to benzene at work over long periods of time raised the risk of developing leukemia and dying from acute myelogenous leukemia. Researchers determined that exposure to occupational levels of benzene in the air at 1 part per million or more for 10 years or more was likely to result in leukemia.

Outside air in residential neighborhoods typically has far less than 1 ppm benzene. Although air inside homes may contain slightly higher amounts of the chemical, occupational exposure is often much higher. Occupational levels of benzene are high in specific industries where workers are continuously inhaling car exhaust or are manufacturing petrochemicals. When people smoke cigarettes they inhale benzene, and smoking also increases levels of the chemical in the surrounding air.

Benzene exposure can also occur in the home. Certain building materials, furniture, heating and cooling systems and stored solvents are all sources of benzene. The risk of exposure to in-home sources of benzene can be managed by increasing ventilation and air-exchange in the home.

Individuals exposed to the chemical who later developed serious health conditions have brought benzene lawsuits against many manufacturing companies in the oil and gas and chemical industries. These cases allege companies knew about the cancer risk connected to benzene exposure but didn’t warn employees.

In California, Chevron Corporation, a car manufacturer, paid $21 million to the families of two brothers who died after long-term exposure to benzene. The brothers worked in a tire manufacturing plant, and Chevron did not warn employees about the risks associated with benzene exposure.

People who developed illnesses after benzene exposure have also filed lawsuits against Procter & Gamble, the manufacturer of many different consumer products. P&G settled an $8 million class-action lawsuit because the company didn’t disclose benzene in certain product formulas.

Long-Term Benzene Exposure Symptoms

Long-term benzene exposure of over a year has specific effects on bone marrow, where the body makes blood cells, and on the blood. Benzene can cause red blood cell numbers to decrease, leading to anemia and excessive bleeding. Long-term exposure to the chemical can also cause a specific form of anemia called aplastic anemia, which is a risk factor for a serious blood disorder called acute nonlymphocytic anemia.

Long-term benzene exposure can also disrupt body systems. Chronic exposure to the chemical damages the immune system, leading to increased infections, and can cause hormonal changes resulting in irregular menstruation.

Long-term benzene exposure symptoms include:
  • Aplastic anemia
  • Blood disorders
  • Cancer of the blood-forming organs (bone marrow)
  • Chromosomal abnormalities
  • Decrease in red blood cells
  • Excessive bleeding
  • Immune system damage
  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Leukemia
  • Smaller ovaries

Long-term benzene exposure impacts reproductive hormones, and there is some evidence that benzene has developmental toxicity for fetuses exposed in utero. Animal studies show that high levels of benzene exposure may impact reproductive organs or negatively affect fetuses, including delaying bone formation, bone marrow damage and low birth weight.

Studies on humans have concluded that long-term benzene exposure impacts the endocrine system, immune system, blood cell creation and bone marrow and can lead to severe disorders. An acute form of lymphoma connected to blood cell creation and leukemia are related to long-term exposure to benzene.

What to Do if Exposed to Benzene

If you are exposed to benzene in the air, seek medical attention. Immediately leave the area and remove clothing as soon as possible. Do not pull contaminated clothing over your head; cut off the clothing instead. As soon as possible, wash your entire body with soap and water and rinse your eyes with plain water for 15 minutes. If you wear contact lenses, remove them with clean hands and place them with any contaminated clothing. Remove eyeglasses and wash them before wearing them again.

After washing, place any contaminated items in a plastic bag and seal it to ensure no one else comes into contact with the chemical. Make sure that emergency workers know where your contaminated items are so they can safely dispose of them.

If you are exposed to benzene:
  • Seek medical attention right away; call 911.
  • Leave the area as soon as possible.
  • Safely remove contaminated clothing
  • Wash your entire body with soap and water; rinse your eyes with clean water for 15 minutes.
  • Safely dispose of contaminated items.
  • Do not induce vomiting or drink fluids.
  • Do not perform CPR on someone who may have swallowed benzene.
  • If you think your water may be contaminated with benzene, drink bottled water.

Limiting future benzene exposure can lower the risk of health issues. Avoid any consumer products containing even small amounts of benzene or replace them with products that don’t.

Avoiding tobacco smoke can help reduce overall exposure because tobacco smoke is a significant source of benzene, and the chemical is present in second-hand smoke. Benzene is also in many home, body and cosmetic products. The chemical may be in paint, furniture wax, motor fuel and detergents, so it is important to use these products in well-ventilated areas or outside.

Benzene is also in sunscreen and other body products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recalled Banana Boat sunscreen, for example, due to the presence of benzene. This recall notice and others are available on the FDA’s website.

Please seek the advice of a medical professional before making health care decisions.