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How Benzene Exposure Can Cause Illness

Benzene is a colorless or yellow liquid. It's flammable, dissolves slightly in water, and has a sweet odor. It evaporates very quickly, so it's hard to detect. There are several ways you can come into contact with both low and high concentrations of benzene. This article will discuss the risks of benzene, its sources, and methods of exposure.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has determined benzene is a human carcinogen, posing a cancer risk. Specifically, benzene exposure is known to cause leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) have confirmed this.

How Does Benzene Exposure Occur?

Benzene can come from both natural processes and human activities. Natural sources of benzene include volcanoes and forest fires. If you work as a firefighter or live in areas where forest fires or volcanic eruptions occur, you may be at a higher risk of exposure.

Benzene is also naturally contained in crude oil, solvents, pesticides, resins, and tobacco smoke. It enters the air through industrial emissions, motor vehicle exhaust, and burning coal. It's also common at gas stations.

Exposure to small amounts of benzene is common. It doesn't become dangerous until you encounter higher levels of benzene. It is also harmful to endure repeated exposure. High levels of exposure typically occur through emissions, water, and consumer products.

Low levels of benzene exist in the air due to emissions from motor vehicle exhaust, waste sites, refineries, gas stations, tobacco smoke, and other industrial emissions. Indoor air may contain even higher levels due to products such as glues, lubricants, paints, furniture wax, and detergents. Additionally, benzene leaks from underground storage tanks or hazardous waste sites may contaminate well water.

Benzene Exposure Is an Occupational Hazard

Because companies use it in manufacturing, workers are at a high risk of encountering toxic levels of benzene. A wide range of industrial applications, including producing other chemicals, dyes, detergents, and some plastics, also involve this chemical.

If workers who use benzene don't wear safety equipment and take other preventive measures, they can encounter high benzene levels. To reduce occupational exposure, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has implemented exposure limits in industries where workers are at the most significant risk. But this doesn't eliminate the threat.

Individuals who suffer benzene exposure must report their injuries to their employer immediately. If this happens to you, there's a chance you'll have to file a worker's compensation claim.

Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Exposure to Benzene

Low levels of benzene exposure don't often cause health problems. Problems develop after long-term exposure and exposure to high levels of benzene. At that point, you may develop symptoms within minutes or hours.

This article will discuss the common symptoms of benzene exposure. Your symptoms will depend on the method of exposure. If you encounter benzene in the air, you will probably not develop many symptoms. If you ingest it, you may experience an immediate and intense reaction.

Health Effects of Benzene Inhalation

The most likely method of exposure to benzene is inhalation. Inhalation occurs when you encounter it in the air, such as near a hazardous waste site or gas station.

When you inhale benzene, you may notice the following symptoms:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Headaches
  • Tremors
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness
  • Death (if exposed to very high levels)

You probably won't get sick from short-term exposure. However, if you think you are ill from benzene, seek medical attention immediately. Once this chemical enters your system, it attacks your bone marrow, white blood cells, and red blood cells, causing anemia and leukemia.

Benzene in Food and Drinking Water

You may wonder why somebody would drink or eat foods and beverages containing benzene. Unfortunately, it does happen. For instance, some soft drinks contain low levels of benzene.

If you ingest benzene, you may notice the following symptoms:

  • Vomiting
  • Stomach irritation
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Convulsions
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat

Benzene is also an eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritant. If you're concerned about the content of your food and drinks, consult the National Institute of Health's national toxicology program. Their fact sheet describes exposure levels and how benzene can affect your health.

Long-Term Exposure to Benzene

Long-term (chronic) exposure to benzene may cause blood disorders such as leukemia, particularly acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has also confirmed benzene can negatively affect the female reproductive system.

Blood disorders resulting from long-term benzene exposure may affect bone marrow (the tissues that produce blood cells), leading to anemia. Long-term exposure may also cause excessive bleeding and damage to your immune system.

Women who breathe high levels of benzene over many months may experience irregular menstrual periods or a decrease in ovary size. The effects on pregnant women and developing fetuses are unknown. There is also debate over whether benzene impacts fertility.

While it's still unknown if children are more susceptible to benzene poisoning than adults, they can exhibit the same symptoms identified above if exposed to benzene.

Reducing the Risk of Exposure to Benzene

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends controlling exposure to benzene by limiting evaporation and preventing splashes and spills. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has confirmed this and offers information on dangerous levels and concentrations of benzene.

Employees who use benzene should employ hoods, canopies, and proper ventilation. They should also wear personal protective equipment. Wear personal protective equipment if your company cannot control the levels of benzene.

Individuals who don't come into contact with benzene at work can reduce exposure by limiting contact with gasoline and cigarette smoke. Families are encouraged not to smoke in their houses, enclosed environments, or near their children.

Proving Causation in Benzene Lawsuits

You may have a legal claim if you are sick and believe benzene caused your illness. You may have a valid workers' compensation claim if you were injured at work. Your workers' comp attorney must prove that benzene exposure caused your illness. Proving this can be difficult—there are a lot of toxins that cause cancer and related diseases.

The same is true if personal exposure to benzene causes your condition. Your personal injury attorney must demonstrate that another party is responsible for that exposure. For example, if your child drank the same beverage every day for two years and developed cancer, you may have a claim against the soft drink company. However, it will be difficult to prove that their product directly caused your child's illness.

The good news is that medical tests can detect high levels of benzene in your system. There is also ample evidence that benzene poses a risk to both public health and environmental health. Your attorney can draw on this evidence and rely on expert witnesses to help prove your case.

Benzene Exposure - Getting Legal Help

If you or a loved one have experienced symptoms or developed a medical condition related to benzene exposure, you should seek immediate medical attention. If you have used products containing benzene that didn't have adequate warnings, or if you're concerned you encountered high levels of benzene at your place of work, you may wish to meet with an experienced toxic torts attorney to discuss your options and to protect your right to a legal remedy for your injuries.

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