What is benzene and why is it dangerous to health?

In recent years, different types of products have been withdrawn from the market due to benzene contamination.

But what is this substance? why can it be found in personal care items? what are its effects on health? Here we review the available evidence and provide answers to these questions and more.

What is benzene?

Benzene is a highly flammable chemical with a sweet smell. In air it can evaporate quickly, while in water it dissolves slightly, so it can float on top of it. For this reason, it is considered a major pollutant.

It is currently one of the top 20 most produced chemicals in the US in terms of volume. It is used to make other chemicals that are used to make plastics, resins, synthetic fibers, lubricants, rubbers, dyes, and pesticides, among other products.

What are its effects on health?

Experts warn that there are no safe levels of exposure to benzene, because it is highly toxic, even at low levels.

  • Effects of environmental pollution on humans

The severity of benzene poisoning will depend on the amount, route, and time of exposure, as well as the age and pre-existing medical condition of the person exposed. Immediate signs and symptoms are:

  • Confusion.
  • Headaches.
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat.
  • Dizziness.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Tremors.
  • Death (at very high levels).
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In case of ingestion of food or drinks with high levels of benzene, you can also suffer from:

  • seizures
  • stomach irritation
  • vomiting.
  • Death (at very high levels).

In addition, direct exposure of the eyes, skin, or lungs to benzene can cause tissue injury and irritation.
In the long term (a year or more of exposure) benzene can cause:

  • Cancer, mainly leukemia.
  • Damage to the bone marrow, causing a decrease in red blood cells, which can lead to anemia.
  • Irregular menstrual periods and a decrease in the size of the ovaries
  • Excessive bleeding, and with it problems with the immune system, which increases the possibility of infection.

Remember: Showing these signs and symptoms does not necessarily mean that a person has been exposed to benzene.

Where is benzene found?

Benzene can be formed from natural processes, such as forest fires or volcanic eruptions, but also as a result of human activities, for example, it is a natural component of crude oil and gasoline, it is found in cigarette smoke and on other organic materials that have been burned.

For this reason, experts warn that those who are in constant contact with motor vehicles, gas stations, or with the use of glues or paints may be more exposed. Also those who work in factories where benzene is used to make their products.

However, in recent years, different investigations have warned about another type of contact for the majority of the population: personal care products.

An investigation carried out by a laboratory called Valisure, detected during 2021 in the US benzene in hand sanitizers, sunscreens, deodorants, dry shampoos, conditioners, antiperspirants, body sprays and antifungals, according to a publication by Guardian.

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The contamination was most often found in aerosols, some at levels the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) characterized as “dangerous to life.”

  • Lots of five Neutrogena and Aveeno spray sunscreens (Neutrogena Beach Defense, Neutrogena Cool Dry Sport, Neutrogena Invisible Daily Defense, Neutrogena Ultra Sheer, and Aveeno Protect + Refresh) were recalled in the US in July 2021.
  • Lots of Tinactin and Lotrimin antifungal sprays and Coppertone spray sunscreens were recalled in October 2021.
  • Lots of Old Spice and Secret antiperspirant sprays were recalled in November 2021.
  • Lots of Pantene and Herbal Essence spray dry shampoos and conditioners were recalled in December.
  • Lots of six aerosol antiperspirants from Brut and Sure were recalled in early 2022.
  • According to the researchers, of 662 items that were tested, 180 (about 27%) found benzene. These findings suggest that benzene contamination is widespread and is likely to be found in more products that have yet to be tested.

    How to protect yourself from benzene?

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer different tips to protect yourself from benzene exposure:

    • If it was released into the air: It is advisable to get fresh air out of the area where the benzene was released. If the release was outdoors, you should move away from the area affected by benzene.
    • If you think you were exposed to benzene: take off your clothes (ideally, cut them off rather than pull them over your head), quickly wash your entire body with soap and water. Then a doctor should be seen immediately.
    • If eyes burn or vision is blurred: Flush your eyes with running water for 10 to 15 minutes. If you wear contact lenses, remove them after washing your hands and put them with the clothes you think are contaminated (they should be disposed of in airtight containers). Do not put contact lenses in your eyes again. Then a doctor should be seen immediately.
    • If you think your water supply may contain benzeneDrink bottled water until you are sure the supply is safe. You should also see a doctor immediately to rule out possible poisoning.
    • If someone has swallowed benzene, it is recommended not to make them vomit or give them fluids to drink. The vomit could be sucked into the lungs and severely damage them. CPR should also not be attempted. Call a doctor as soon as possible.

      Remember, benzene poisoning is treated with medical care in a hospital setting. There is no specific remedy to combat it, the most important thing is that the affected person receives professional attention as soon as possible.

      Sources consulted: US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), US National Library of Medicine, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Mayo Clinic.

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