Fact Sheet: Benzene


Brief Overview:
Contaminant: Benzene
Category:  Organic
Source: Fuel, drugs, paint, pesticides
Effect: Cancer
Followup: Treat and retest quarterly
Treatment: Granular activated charcoal

Benzene is a clear, colorless aromatic liquid. It is highly flammable. The greatest use of benzene is as a building block for making plastics, rubber, resins and synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester. Other uses include: as a solvent in printing, paints, dry cleaning, etc.
Production of benzene has increased: from about 9.9 billion lbs. in 1984 to over 12 billion lbs. in 1993.

Benzene is released to air primarily from fumes and exhaust connected with its use in gasoline. Other sources are fumes from its production and use in manufacturing other chemicals. In addition, there are discharges into water from industrial effluents and losses during spills.

From 1987 to 1992, according to the Toxics Release Inventory, releases of benzene to water and land totalled over 2 million lbs. These releases were primarily from petroleum refining industries, with the greatest releases occurring in Texas.
What happens to Benzene when it is released to the environment? If benzene is released to soil, it will either evaporate very quickly or leach to groundwater. It can be broken down by some soil microbes. It may also be degraded in some ground waters. If benzene is released to surface water, most of it should evaporate within a few hours. Though it does not degrade by reacting with water, it may be degraded by microbes. It is not likely to accumulate in aquatic organisms.

Short-term: EPA has found benzene to potentially cause the following health effects when people are exposed to it at levels above the MCL for relatively short periods of time: temporary nervous system disorders, immune system depression, anemia.
Long-term: Benzene has the potential to cause the following effects from a lifetime exposure at levels above the MCL: chromosome aberrations, cancer.

Treat and retest quarterly.

Granular activated charcoal in combination with Packed Tower Aeration.