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Harmful Effects of Benzene

| By Tina M. St. John, M.D.
Harmful Effects of Benzene
Benzene is present in crude oil and gasoline. Photo Credit chemical waste image by Antonio Oquias from Fotolia.com

In all likelihood, you will encounter the chemical benzene today. It is present in the air largely as a pollutant from manufacturing and motor vehicle exhaust. Many manufacturing processes involve benzene including the production detergents, medicines, synthetic fabrics and dyes. Cigarette smoke also contains benzene. In addition to polluting the air, benzene can also contaminate water supplies and the soil. Benzene enters the body through inhalation of the vapors, absorption through the skin or ingestion. The adverse health effects of benzene depend on the route, duration and dose of your exposure.

Poisoning

Accidental or intentional ingestion of benzene causes acute poisoning. Benzene is rapidly absorbed into the blood stream and travels to the brain with devastating effects. Stupor, delirium, and drowsiness give way to seizures and coma. Fluid accumulates in the lungs compromising breathing; there is poor oxygen absorption from the air. Intensive treatment is necessary to prevent death.

Inhalation Injuries

Benzene irritates the linings of the airways. Exposure to low concentration benzene vapors can cause inflammation of the nasal airways and throat. High-level exposure can severely damage the lungs causing fluid accumulation and bleeding, which is often fatal. Accidental and potentially life-threatening benzene inhalation injuries can occur in people who practice huffing--inhaling the vapors of chemical products to induce a recreational high.

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Skin Disorders

Benzene is harmful to the skin. Exposure to low levels of benzene vapors may cause dermatitis--a local skin reaction characterized by dry, itchy, red skin. Highly concentrated benzene vapors or spills of liquid benzene on the skin can cause second-degree burns.

Headaches and Neurological Problems

Headaches, sleep disturbances, irritability, confusion, memory loss and nerve damage in the extremities (arms and legs) may occur with persistent exposure to benzene vapors. Short-term exposure to highly concentrated benzene vapors may cause decreased consciousness, stupor, seizures, coma and possibly death.

Pancytopenia

Chronic exposure to benzene can cause a serious bone marrow disorder called pancytopenia. A marked reduction in the number of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets occurs because the bone marrow--the site of all blood cell and platelet production--cannot produce sufficient quantities. Pancytopenia causes chronic anemia and increases risk for serious infections. The low platelet count may cause uncontrolled bleeding.

Aplastic Anemia

Chronic benzene exposure may cause aplastic anemia, which is a more advanced form of pancytopenia. With this disorder, the bone marrow is so severely damaged that blood cell and platelet production drop to levels too low to sustain life. Transfusions are necessary to replace the blood cells not produced by the bone marrow. Bone marrow transplant is generally the best option for long-term survival with aplastic anemia.

Leukemia

Protracted occupational or other exposure to benzene may cause leukemia--cancer of the white blood cells. The strongest association is with acute myelogenous leukemia followed by chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Regulations are now in place in the U.S. to control benzene exposure in the workplace and prevent occupationally induced leukemias.

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author image Tina M. St. John, M.D.
Tina M. St. John runs a health communications and consulting firm. She is an also author and editor, and was formerly a senior medical officer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. St. John holds an M.D. from the Emory University School of Medicine.
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