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10.3: Functions and Applications of Benzene

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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Benzene Poisoning

Benzene is a highly toxic substance that can affect DNA, causing chromosome changes and abnormal cell function. Long-term exposure to benzene can cause the bone marrow to produce fewer blood cells. This results in anemia, or a low red blood cell count. Benzene exposure also severely weakens the immune system because it lowers the white blood cell count. The most serious effect of benzene poisoning is leukemia, which is a cancer of blood cell-producing tissues. Some other symptoms of benzene poisoning include drowsiness, dizziness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, headaches, tremors, confusion, unconsciousness, and even death. If benzene is ingested, symptoms may include vomiting, irritation of the stomach, dizziness, sleepiness, convulsions, rapid or irregular heartbeat, and again death, if an extremely large amount is ingested. In addition, women who inhale benzene constantly for a long period of time report delayed menstrual periods. Further investigation showed that their ovaries had shrunk.

The link between benzene poisoning and leukemia was discovered in 1928. Twenty years later, the American Petroleum Institute concluded that the only safe exposure to benzene is none at all. Today, the National Toxicology Program (NTP), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) all classify benzene as a “known carcinogen.” The EPA limits benzene in drinking water to 5 ppb (parts per billion), though they hope to eventually achieve 0 ppb. The concentration of benzene in the air of the workplace is limited to 1 ppb.

If you are exposed to benzene, there are a series of steps you can take to diminish its effects. First, immediately leave the area where benzene was released. If you are inside, evacuate the building, and if you are outside, simply move away from the area. Then, remove all clothing items. Do not pull clothing over the head to get it off; cut it off instead. Next, wash thoroughly with soap and water to remove any benzene on the skin. Now, carefully dispose of the clothes by being careful not to handle contaminated objects with bare skin. Instead, use rubber gloves or tongs to handle contaminated items. It is important to seek medical attention right away so that the level of benzene in the body can be measured. This helps medical professionals to know what the possible symptoms might be. The benzene level can be measured from blood, breath, or urine samples, but the accuracy of these tests will decrease with time.

If you are around someone who has swallowed benzene, do not try to make the person vomit or to administer CPR, even if he or she is not breathing. Performing CPR may cause the person to vomit, which could be inhaled and cause damages to the lungs. Instead, call 911 immediately and seek medical attention.

Products Containing Benzene

Benzene is most commonly used in the industrial production of other chemicals. It is necessary to produce many paint products, such as top coats, sealants, solvents, spray paints lacquers, and more. Auto repair facilities use products produced with benzene to clean brakes, hydraulic systems, and fuel system components. Benzene is also used in the creation of rubber tires and is a component of asphalt and crude oil, as well as all lubricants made from crude oil. Furthermore, benzene is often used in the creation of pesticides.

Benzene has also been discovered in many brands of soft drinks in concentrations up to 10 - 20 ppb. In 1993, Professor Glenn Lawrence of Long Island University first discovered the presence of benzene in soft drinks containing ascorbic acid, or Vitamin C. This often occurs when sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate is used as a preservative in a Vitamin C fortified beverage. The preservative reacts with the Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, to produce benzene. Consuming drinks containing both of these ingredients should be avoided in order to minimize benzene exposure. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now working with the National Beverage Association to limit the amount of benzene contained in various soft drinks.

Benzene and the BP Oil Spill

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, owned by the BP oil company exploded, spewing tons of crude oil, which contains benzene, into the ocean. By the end of May, 20 million gallons (75 million liter) of oil had been released. This value is nearly double the output of the second worst oil spill in the United States, Exxon Valdez, which occurred in 1989.

A satellite view of the oil spill.

The effects of the spill are far-reaching with many short- and long-term impacts on the environment and economy. By early June, the spill had stained marshes of southern Louisiana. These marshes make up 40% of the United States’ wetlands and provide a crucial habitat to a number of rare organisms. Experts have also discovered mile long underwater plumes of oil emitting from the rig. The ocean currents and winds could carry the oil all over the world, causing disastrous international effects. As of June 21, 2010, fishing has also been banned in over 37% Gulf’s waters, which is an area of approximately 88,000 square miles (228,000 square kilometers), due to environmental hazards. This has a negative impact on the fishing industry, as 15% of the fish caught in the US come from the gulf.

A map of the oil spill.

Meanwhile, because crude oil contains high concentrations of benzene, there has been some debate on whether the 50 million people who reside between the Texas/Mexico border and the Florida coast need to be evacuated. So far, 86 people have gotten sick from benzene produced by spill. Most of these people were working to clean up the spill when they were poisoned. A total of 500,000 pounds of benzene was emitted as of July 10th. An average of 400 pounds benzene is released every day, which is enough to have severe effects on Gulf Coast residents. Because the US government promises to protect against benzene poisoning, citizens that become sick due to the benzene emissions can sue BP. However, this is a small comfort to those living in danger of the effects of benzene.

To view photographs of some of the effects of the oil spill, check out these websites:

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Date Created:
Feb 23, 2012
Last Modified:
Aug 20, 2016
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