by Amanda Sandidge Engstrom, CIH, CSP
Senior Consultant

Evaporating quickly and heavier than air, benzene is a colorless sweet-smelling liquid found naturally and in a variety of manufactured products. From volcanoes to cigarette smoke, this aromatic hydrocarbon is ranked in the top 20 chemicals for production volume in the United States. Everyday exposures to benzene can occur in the workplace, the environment and in the home. Products like detergent, lubricants and synthetic fibers can be manufactured using benzene and its derivatives.

The printing industry historically utilized benzene in ink, and it has been particularly useful as an additive to unleaded gasoline. In 2008, most of the benzene used in US manufacturing facilities went to the production of ethylbenzene. This compound is consumed in the production of a key component to polystyrene and styrene copolymers. Certain cosmetics like nail polishes and eyeliner as well as sunscreen, along with thermoplastics, can make use of styrene copolymers in various forms.

Health Effects
Though some products manufactured utilizing benzene may not pose significant health risks, when used as directed, the chemical itself is classified as a cancer-causing carcinogen. Cells are damaged by chronic benzene exposure. Production of red blood cells in bone marrow may decrease causing anemia. White blood cells, along with immune system function, can also be impacted. As with any chemical the dose, route of entry and length of exposure determine how big of an impact benzene will have on the body.

Short term or acute exposures to elevated levels can lead to dizziness, nausea, confusion, tremors and even death within hours. Additional long term exposure risks have included impacts to the female reproductive system, skin and tissue damage and leukemia.

Regulations
To reduce the risk of benzene exposure in the workplace, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration established 29 CFR 1910.1028 for general industry and its construction counterpart 1926.1128 along with the maritime standard 1915.1028. These standards outline exposure limits, regulated areas, and controls in industries where benzene is present. The established 8-hour time-weighted average limit (TWA) is documented as one part of benzene per million parts of air (1 ppm) while the 15-minute average short-term exposure limit (STEL) must be under five (5) ppm.

When it comes to the environment, benzene released to surface soils or groundwater will tend to evaporate quickly. This decreases the chances of long-term ecological impact associated with a surface release. However, given its use in gas and oil products that may be stored in underground tanks, there is a risk of release to subsurface soils and groundwater. As a result of potential impacts to public health and the environment, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established its own limits for benzene concentrations in soil and water.

Assessment
Due to the potential presence of benzene in air, water and soil, an assortment of testing options exists. Multiple options may be needed to accurately assess a site. If the risk of exposure is determined to be a source in a manufacturing facility, then employee personal breathing zone sampling on a periodic basis could be the best option.

Soil and water sampling during the closure of an underground fuel tank can be performed to determine if benzene, along with related contaminants, have been released. Area air sampling in public spaces or private settings can determine if glues, paints or waxes are creating elevated levels of airborne contamination. Testing should always be performed using up-to-date analytical methods by an experienced industrial hygiene and environmental consulting firm.

How Can We Help
Looking for benzene testing services or have other industrial hygiene and environmental concerns? Please contact Amanda Sandidge Engstrom CIH, CSP at (540) 343-9595 or [email protected].

References:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Facts about Benzene.” Cdc.gov, CDC, 4 Apr. 2018, emergency.cdc.gov/agent/benzene/basics/facts.asp.

‌American Cancer Society. “Benzene and Cancer Risk | American Cancer Society.” Www.cancer.org, 1 Feb. 2023, www.cancer.org/cancer/risk-prevention/chemicals/benzene.html.

“Benzene – Overview | Occupational Safety and Health Administration.” Www.osha.gov, www.osha.gov/benzene.

“Benzene Sampling and Analysis Methods | SGS Galson.” Www.sgsgalson.com, 6 May 2019, www.sgsgalson.com/sampling-analysis/benzene-sampling-and-analysis-order-online-cas-71-43-2/.

IARC (2012). Chemical agents and related occupations. Volume 100 F. A review of human carcinogens. Lyon, International Agency for Research on Cancer, pp. 249–294 (IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, Volume 100 F; http://publications.iarc.fr/123).