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Signs and Symptoms of Benzene Exposure

Benzene is a volatile, flammable liquid with a sweet smell. Acute exposure to high levels of benzene through inhalation can cause asphyxiation, while acute exposure from ingesting the chemical can cause burning of the mouth, esophagus and stomach, nausea, vomiting and pain. Acute topical exposure to benzene can damage the skin and eyes.

Effects of benzene exposure change depending on the quantity of the chemical and exposure duration and can be more serious in children. Research has linked both acute doses of benzene and low doses absorbed over time to central nervous system toxicity and certain blood disorders and cancers. Exposure occurs most often through workplace contact, cigarette smoke and car exhaust. Chemical spills, consumer products and contaminated drinking water can also expose people to benzene.

Symptoms of Benzene Exposure
  • Confusion
  • Convulsions
  • Death (at very high levels of exposure)
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Headaches
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Sleepiness
  • Tremors
  • Unconsciousness
  • Vomiting

The body absorbs benzene quickly through inhalation and ingestion. After inhaling the chemical into the lungs, symptoms of benzene exposure happen rapidly and can be either mild or severe, depending on the amount inhaled. Mild effects include blurred vision, confusion, dizziness, nausea and difficulty walking. Severe effects include coma or death at very high levels, loss of consciousness, respiratory depression and tremors.

Benzene is not well-absorbed through intact skin, but small amounts can build up in the body over time and cause systemic toxicity. Children are likely to have a more severe response to both acute and chronic exposure to benzene and may require different treatment than adults. In particular, chronic exposure can be more dangerous to children because the delay between the exposure and the appearance of health effects, called the latency period, can be longer in children. The exposure can go unnoticed longer, leading to worse health outcomes.

Long-Term Effects of Benzene Exposure

Long-term or chronic exposure to benzene at high or low concentrations can have a serious impact. Short-term exposure at high concentrations can induce similar symptoms.

Long-term exposure to benzene allows the chemical to impact bone marrow and cause blood disorders such as excessive bleeding or anemia. Long-term exposure can also cause irregular menstrual cycles, decreased ovary size and complications during pregnancy. Extended inhalation of the chemical also damages the immune system.

Long-term health effects of benzene exposure include:
  • Acute Myelogenous Leukemia: Type of cancer that affects the blood system by causing bone marrow to produce a large number of abnormal myeloid cells. These cells normally develop into the various types of mature blood cells, such as red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.
  • Aplastic Anemia: Serious blood disorder that happens when bone marrow cannot make enough new blood cells.
  • Miscarriage: Spontaneous loss of a fetus before the 20th week of pregnancy.
  • Multiple Myeloma: Form of cancer that affects a type of white blood cells called plasma cells and disrupts the immune system.
  • Myelodysplastic Syndromes: Group of cancers that impact immature blood cells in the bone marrow and do not allow them to grow into healthy, normal cells.
  • Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma: Disease that causes the body to produce too many abnormal lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell.
  • Pancytopenia: Condition that affects the bone marrow and causes lower-than-normal counts of white and red blood cells and platelets.
  • Thrombocytopenia: A condition that occurs when the platelet count in your blood is too low.

Long-term benzene exposure effects on health are serious. Long-term or chronic exposure can cause blood disorders, changes to the immune and hormone systems and certain cancers.

Pregnant women have specific risks associated with benzene. Long-term exposure can lead to an increased risk of complications during pregnancy. Prolonged exposure can also cause a growing fetus to develop abnormalities, blood disorders and, potentially, cancer.

What Cancers Are Linked to Benzene?

Benzene exposure has shown links to esophageal cancer and leukemia, a cancer of blood-forming tissues. Benzene exposure can disrupt blood cell health and production. In particular, benzene exposure can increase the risk of acute myeloid leukemia and may increase the risk of childhood blood cancers.

Those who work with benzene or live near a factory using the chemical are at risk from long-term exposure. People who work in the oil-refining, shoemaking and chemical production industries may experience regular exposure to benzene.

Chronic exposure to benzene through contaminated water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina led to an increased risk of cancer for thousands of people living at or near the site. These people unknowingly ingested the chemical, and others, over many years and have reported high rates of several types of cancer.

How Long Does Benzene Stay in Your Body?

Regardless of the type of exposure, most of the components of benzene leave the body after 48 hours. When inhaling high levels of benzene, about half of the chemical crosses through the lungs and into the bloodstream. After ingesting benzene, most of the chemical passes through the intestines into the bloodstream. The body may then temporarily store it in bone marrow or fat.

Benzene converts to chemical products called metabolites in the liver and bone marrow, which can cause harmful symptoms. Although these metabolites leave through the urine, chronic exposure can cause levels of benzene to remain elevated in the body. In the U.S., this risk has led to recalls of sunscreen products contaminated with benzene.

What Should I Do if I Experience Symptoms of Benzene Exposure?

Seek medical attention right away if you’re exposed to benzene. You can request a test that measures benzene exposure, but a doctor must conduct the test immediately after exposure. The test cannot predict the future health effects of benzene on your body. Those exposed to benzene through inhalation or ingestion are not likely to contaminate others, but if benzene has come into contact with the skin or clothes, contamination is possible.

If benzene exposure has happened via the eyes, wash with plain water or a saline solution for at least 15 minutes and remove contact lenses if possible. If benzene is on the skin or hair, rinse with plain water first, then with a mild soap, and dispose of any contaminated clothing. Do not induce vomiting after ingesting benzene.

Benzene exposure does not have an antidote. Symptomatic treatment of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems may be necessary, and activated charcoal may help absorb the chemical from the stomach and intestines. Individuals exposed to the chemical have filed benzene lawsuits. An experienced attorney can help you decide whether you are eligible to file a lawsuit for compensation for medical expenses and pain and suffering caused by exposure to benzene.

Please seek the advice of a qualified professional before making decisions about your health or finances.
Last Modified: August 15, 2023

18 Cited Research Articles

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  2. Borrel, A. & Rudel, R.A. (2022, November 30). Cheminformatics analysis of chemicals that increase estrogen and progesterone synthesis for a breast cancer hazard assessment. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-022-24889-w
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  17. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (n.d.). Thrombocytopenia. Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/thrombocytopenia
  18. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (n.d.). Aplastic Anemia. Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/anemia/aplastic-anemia