Benzene – the Hidden Carcinogen That’s Everywhere

By Michael A. Smith, MD

Benzene was first discovered in the 1800s when it was isolated from tar. It didn’t take long for chemists to find out it was a very powerful compound. What’s amazing about it is its ringed chemical structure — which gives it stability and makes it a good medium for performing chemical reactions. The ringed structure also means it can stay in our environment (and our bodies) for a decent amount of time, around 10 days.

Benzene is made mostly from petroleum. Because of its wide use, benzene ranks in the top 20 for chemicals produced in the United States. Various industries use benzene to make other chemicals, such as Styrofoam®, plastics, resins, nylon and synthetic fibers. Benzene is also used in the manufacturing of some types of rubbers, lubricants, dyes, detergents, pesticides and even drugs. So as you can see it’s all over our environment.

And this is the point we want to make. The FDA and EPA have decided that products containing less than 10 micrograms of benzene are safe. But when it’s used in so many products, our exposure goes well beyond 10 micrograms.

Why does all of this matter? Because benzene is a known cancer-causing chemical.

Benzene’s Toxic Life Cycle

Benzene can pass between different environments very readily. It moves from the soil into water droplets and then into the air without much of a problem. Once in the air, benzene reacts with other chemicals. These newly formed chemicals can destroy ozone and cause disease in animals — including us — as they return from the air and back to the soil.

Benzene doesn’t have to react with other chemicals to become dangerous, however. It can enter into your body unchanged through your lungs, gastrointestinal tract and across your skin. When you’re exposed to high levels of benzene in the air, about half of it passes through your lungs into your blood. And because it’s found in plastics, it can enter into your body through your gut. Your body will store benzene in your bone marrow and body fat.

The Negative Health Effects of Benzene

After exposure to benzene, several factors determine whether harmful health effects will occur, as well as the type and severity of such health effects. These factors include the amount of benzene to which you’re exposed and the length of time of the exposure.

Most information on effects of long-term exposure to benzene is from studies of workers employed in industries that make or use benzene. These workers were exposed to levels of benzene in the air far greater than the levels normally encountered by the general population. But given the fact that benzene is everywhere, we believe that we can extrapolate the results of those studies to everyday life.

A low level of exposure can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, tremors, confusion, and unconsciousness. In most cases, people will stop feeling these effects when they are no longer exposed and begin to breathe fresh air.

Eating foods or drinking liquids containing high levels of benzene can cause vomiting, irritation of the stomach, dizziness, sleepiness, convulsions, rapid heart rate, coma, and death. The health effects that may result from eating foods or drinking liquids containing lower levels of benzene are not known.

Benzene causes problems in the blood as well, specifically in the bone marrow, where blood cells are made. A decrease in red blood cells can lead to anemia. Reduction in other components in the blood can cause excessive bleeding.

Excessive exposure to benzene can be harmful to the immune system, increasing the chance for infection and perhaps even lowering the body's defense against cancer.

Long-term exposure to benzene is linked to leukemia. Exposure to benzene has also been associated with development of a particular type of leukemia called acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

How to Detox Your Body from Deadly Benzene

Your liver is responsible for metabolizing and detoxifying the synthetic chemicals that enter your body — like benzene. Although we suggest an occasional liver detox program, a daily liver support product like milk thistle is suggested for maximum benefit.

Milk thistle is rich in polyphenols, which are plant-based antioxidants. There are two broad categories of polyphenols in milk thistle — silymarin and silybinin. These powerful antioxidants offer protection against food toxins, alcohols and environmental toxins by ultimately supporting liver function.

Silymarin, for instance, has been shown to significantly reduce liver-related mortality in patients with alcoholic liver damage.1,2 Also, silymarin extracts have produced improvements in general well-being in patients with viral hepatitis as well.3

And of course, avoiding benzene exposure as much as possible is also a good idea. Don’t use plastics, nylon, synthetic fibers or Styrofoam cups if possible. Be aware of your environment. If you work with paints, adhesives, lubricants and petroleum products, be sure to support your liver detoxification pathways with foods like artichokes and beets and supplement with B vitamins.

Please note: Information on benzene came from the Toxicological Profile for Benzene by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a United States Public Health Service.

References:

  1. Drugs. 2001;61(14):2035-63.
  2. J Pharm Belg. 2003;58(1):28-31
  3. Dig Liver Dis. 2004 Nov;36(11):752-9.

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