Benzene is a naturally occurring chemical compound. Scientists can also make it in a laboratory, and companies widely use it as a solvent in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. Exposure to benzene can increase the risk of developing leukemia.

Benzene is a hydrocarbon, which means it is an organic compound resulting solely from the elements carbon and hydrogen.

At room temperature, benzene is a colorless, or pale yellow, liquid with a slightly sweet smell. It evaporates quickly and can carry in the air.

People experience exposure to benzene when they breathe it in or swallow it. The skin can also absorb it.

This article explores the link between benzene and leukemia. It will also explain what benzene is, how people use it, and how to limit exposure to it.

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The National Cancer Institute states that exposure to benzene can increase the risk of developing leukemia.

A 2018 review notes that in 1987, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recognized that there is strong evidence that benzene exposure increases the risk of acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

AML is a cancer that affects the bone marrow. The cancer causes the bone marrow to overproduce abnormal white blood cells. These cells can build up in the bone marrow or spill out into other organs around the body.

Can it cause other types of cancer?

People may have a higher risk of developing other cancers, including:

It also has a positive association with the development of acquired aplastic anemia, which is a serious but rare blood disorder in which the bone marrow does not make enough blood cells.

People experience exposure to benzene when they breathe it in, absorb it through the skin, or swallow it.

A review in the Annals of Occupational and Environmental Medicine explains that benzene metabolizes in the liver, and some of the metabolites, or byproducts of metabolism, travel to the bone marrow.

These metabolites are toxic and interfere with the bone marrow’s ability to make healthy blood cells.

It is difficult to estimate the levels of exposure that cause leukemia as this can depend on other factors. A person may experience exposure to a small amount over a long period of time or a large amount over a short period.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that a person’s risk of leukemia increases as a result of long-term exposure to high levels of benzene. Long-term exposure refers to exposure of 1 year or more.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) notes that prolonged exposure, often over years, can have a cumulative effect.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that benzene can cause a risk of one more cancer case for every 100,000 people who experience exposure if a person:

  • regularly drinks water that contains 10 parts per billion (ppb) of benzene over their lifetime
  • regularly breathes in 0.4 ppb of benzene in the air over their lifetime

The main source of benzene is industrial processes.

Benzene is a product that comes from petroleum, and industries use it to create other chemicals to make plastic and synthetic fibers. Industries also use it to create:

  • rubbers
  • dyes
  • pesticides
  • detergents
  • drugs
  • lubricants
  • glues
  • paints
  • paint strippers

Benzene is present in car fumes, cigarette smoke, gas stations, and industrial emissions.

Natural sources include gas emissions that result from forest fires and volcano eruptions.

In industrial settings, the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates benzene exposure. OSHA states that the air people breathe during an 8-hour workday can only contain 1 ppm benzene.

Following a recommendation from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the United States banned benzene as an ingredient in consumer products in 1978.

Although industries can use benzene as a building block in reactions to produce other chemicals that they use in consumer products, the end result contains little to no benzene.

However, in 2021, researchers discovered higher than normal levels of benzene in some hand sanitizers and sunscreens. The levels ranged from 0.1–16.1 ppm, according to the Report on Carcinogens.

According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the EPA has established the maximum level of benzene allowed in drinking water to be 5 ppb. The FDA has followed these regulations as an allowable level of benzene in bottled water.

The ATSDR states that most people experience exposure to benzene via:

  • tobacco smoke
  • gas stations
  • motor vehicle exhaust fumes
  • industrial emissions

Cigarette smoke is responsible for approximately half of the total U.S. population’s exposure to benzene, as even secondhand smoke contains the chemical. People who smoke 32 cigarettes per day inhale 1.8 milligrams of benzene each day.

Those who live in cities and industrial areas experience exposure to higher levels of benzene.

Those who work with benzene are at risk of benzene exposure, including those who work:

  • in factories that make steel or rubber
  • around inks, such as in the printing industry
  • in gas stations
  • in shoe repair
  • in laboratories

If a person develops AML and other types of leukemia, they may not notice the effects until a long time after the exposure.

Symptoms of AML are non-specific and may include:

However, people may develop symptoms of benzene poisoning at the time of exposure.

People who breathe in high levels of benzene may experience the following symptoms:

  • dizziness
  • headaches
  • drowsiness
  • confusion
  • rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • loss of consciousness
  • death, following very high levels of exposure

If people consume food or drinks that contain high levels of benzene, they may experience the following symptoms within minutes:

  • stomach irritation
  • dizziness
  • vomiting
  • convulsions
  • sleepiness
  • irregular or rapid heartbeat
  • death, following very high levels of exposure

It is important to note that these symptoms are not always a sign of benzene exposure.

It is not possible to completely eliminate benzene exposure, but stopping smoking, or breathing in secondhand smoke, can significantly reduce the amount a person inhales.

Gasoline is another major source of benzene in everyday life, and people can try to limit the amount of time they spend near gas stations.

Those who work with benzene may need special protective equipment and clothing.

The CDC recommend that anyone who thinks they may have experienced exposure to high levels of airborne benzene should leave the area. If they are inside, they should go outdoors. If the outside air is contaminated, people should leave the area.

People who have physical contact with benzene, either on their clothing or skin, need to wash it off as quickly as possible and seek medical help. The CDC recommend cutting off the clothing to avoid it going over the person’s head and not touching the contaminated parts.

Washing with large amounts of soap and water will remove most of the benzene from the skin.

If it enters a person’s eyes, they should rinse the eyes with fresh water for about 15 minutes. People need to remove and dispose of their contact lenses, and those wearing eyeglasses need to wash them thoroughly with soapy water before using them again.

If people are concerned about their exposure to benzene, they should contact a healthcare professional.

Benzene is a chemical that many industries use. It can also form as a result of natural causes, such as forest fires.

Exposure to benzene can increase the risk of developing AML, a type of leukemia.

It is not possible to entirely prevent a person’s exposure to benzene. However, people should stop smoking and avoid places where there are high levels of benzene, if possible.