Benzene is a widely-used toxic chemical that is known to cause leukemia, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Specifically, benzene exposure has been linked to acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).
Besides the leukemia cancer AML, there is a benzene-related disease called myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS).
While benzene does occur naturally, it can also be synthetically produced, which is what most people who are exposed to benzene have worked with or around, i.e., occupational exposure.
Benzene Exposure in General
Benzene exposures mainly occur through two means or methods:
- Inhalation, when benzene fumes are breathed in; and,
- Dermal absorption, when benzene comes in contact with the skin.
Many people are exposed to small amounts of benzene in their everyday lives through cigarette smoke, air pollution, and contact with gasoline. However, those exposures usually do not have serious health effects compared to the excessive benzene exposures experienced by various workers.
Who is at Risk of Benzene Exposure
A person may be at increased risk of developing AML leukemia, MDS, or other benzene-related diseases if that person worked in one of the benzene-exposure industries listed below:
- Benzene production, including petrochemicals, petroleum refining, as well as coke and coal company manufacturing;
- Storage or transport of benzene; and,
- Manufacturing of adhesives, detergents, drugs, dyes, lubricant, nylon, and synthetic fibers, pesticides, plastics, rubbers, resins.
It is estimated there are as many as 238,000 workers in the United States have been significantly exposed to benzene in the past.
Check out our “Workers Who Could Be Exposed to Benzene” page for a list of workers who are particularly at risk of workplace benzene exposure.
Benzene-Related Cancers and Diseases
Benzene cancers and diseases develop because of the effects that benzene has on the blood and the blood-forming organs, such as bone marrow.
While most people are exposed to small amounts of benzene through air pollution, gasoline fumes, and cigarette smoke, the people most at risk of benzene-related cancers and diseases are typically those who have had occupational exposures to benzene on a semi-regular basis in the past.
In cases of excessive exposure, benzene can also compromise the immune system, making it difficult to fight off infections, and even some cancers.
It is important to know that it can take many years from the time when workers are exposed to benzene until they develop any symptoms of benzene-related cancers or diseases, and thereafter get a medical diagnosis.
Benzene exposure is most strongly associated with leukemia (cancer of blood-forming tissues), specifically acute myeloid (or myelogenous) leukemia (AML). Some research indicates that benzene exposure is also associated with an increased risk of developing myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). MDS is often classified as a precursor to AML leukemia, andMDS is sometimes referred to as “pre-leukemia”. For those diagnosed with MDS, there is a fairly high risk of developing AML later in time.
There is also some evidence that benzene exposure may cause the following types of cancers to develop:
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
- Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)
- Multiple myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL)