Benzene is one of the most commonly used chemicals in the United States. It’s a natural component of crude oil and is also used in manufacturing plastics, rubbers, pesticides, and other chemicals.
You can be exposed to benzene by touching the chemical or breathing it in. Benzene evaporates when it comes in contact with oxygen. This makes it easy to breathe in the chemical.
The harmful effects of benzene are well known. The link between benzene and cancer has been scientifically proven, and benzene is classed as a carcinogen by major health organizations around the globe, including the:
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services World Health Organization (WHO)
- Environmental Protection Agency
This article will look closely at the connection between benzene and leukemia.
Leukemia is a blood cancer that begins in the cells of your body that make up blood. This includes the cells in your bone marrow and lymphatic system.
Long-term benzene exposure can harm your bone marrow and blood cells. Exposure to benzene, a known carcinogen, may cause abnormalities in the DNA that controls the development of blood cells in your bone marrow.
This, in turn, can damage your immune system and raise the risk of developing leukemia.
What is acute myeloid leukemia (AML)?
Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is cancer that develops in your blood and bone marrow. This type of cancer specifically affects the myeloid cells. These are cells that give rise to certain types of white blood cells (WBCs). With AML, changes to the DNA that control the creation of blood cells can cause certain white blood cells to form abnormally and too quickly.
If these abnormal white blood cells build up in your blood and bone marrow, they can start replacing healthy white blood cells. When this happens, your bone marrow has a hard time functioning properly. This can weaken your immune system and make it difficult for your body to fight infections.
AML is considered the most common type of leukemia diagnosed in adults. In 2020, there were roughly
Benzene is a colorless chemical formed by natural processes, such as volcanoes and forest fires, as well as by human-made processes.
Benzene is a natural component of crude oil, the main source of benzene today. Due to its presence in crude oil, benzene is also found in gasoline and car exhaust fumes.
Tobacco smoke is a common source of benzene, as the chemical is released when tobacco is burned. Nonsmokers can also be exposed to benzene if they inhale secondhand smoke. On average, though, smokers inhale 10 times more benzene daily than people who don’t smoke.
Benzene is also commonly used as a solvent in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries and is frequently used in the manufacturing of products, such as:
- other chemicals
People working in environments that manufacture benzene products are at the highest exposure risk. This includes people who work in chemical plants, oil refineries, and plastic or rubber manufacturing.
Federal regulations limit the amount of benzene that workers can be exposed to. Facilities that make benzene products are inspected to ensure they meet safety standards.
Similarly, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the amount of benzene that products are allowed to contain. Products over the limit set by the FDA are considered unsafe and aren’t allowed to be sold in the United States.
Benzene is dangerous. High levels are known to cause short-term and long-term health effects. Exposure to very high levels of benzene can be fatal.
Short-term health effects of benzene include:
- loss of consciousness
- rapid heart rate
- irritated eyes, throat, or skin
- red or blistered skin (if skin comes into contact with benzene)
Long-term health effects of benzene include:
- weakened immune system
- excessive bleeding and bruising due to a low platelet count
Talk with your doctor if you think you’ve had exposure to benzene. Even if you’re not experiencing side effects, it’s helpful for your doctor to know whether you’ve been exposed to benzene, especially over the long term.
Benzene levels in your body can be measured through blood tests, urine samples, and breathing tests. This can’t predict long-term health effects, but it can tell if you’ve been exposed.
You can use this knowledge to keep a close eye on your health and to watch for symptoms of AML, such as:
- frequent infections
- shortness of breath
- night sweats
- unintentional weight loss
- bone pain
- joint pain
- flat red or purple spots on your skin
- frequent bleeding and bruising
- feeling of fullness or pain in your stomach
- swollen or tender glands in your neck, armpits, or pelvic region
There are several ways you can limit your exposure to benzene, including:
- if you smoke, consider quitting
- staying away from cigarette smoke
- not touching gasoline when pumping gas
- pumping gas carefully to limit exposure to gasoline fumes
- not breathing in fumes from idling car engines
- limiting exposure to fumes from chemicals you might have in your home, such as paints and solvents
- ensuring that products such as paints and solvents are used in well-ventilated areas
- wearing personal protective gear such as a mask and safety goggles if you’re exposed to benzene at your workplace
Benzene is classified as a toxin and carcinogen because of its known health effects. Benzene has short-term and long-term effects. Exposure to extremely high amounts can even be fatal.
Long-term exposure to benzene may cause damage to your bone marrow and the way your body makes certain types of white blood cells. According to research, long-term exposure to benzene has been linked to an increased risk of leukemia, especially AML.
It’s a good idea to talk with a doctor if you think you’ve had long-term exposure to benzene. They can test whether you’ve been exposed to this chemical.