How To Protect Yourself From Benzene 

This time of year, “smoke season” as some now call it, has us thinking more about air pollution and our health.

In 2020, we had to get comfortable with wearing masks, and now, especially on the west coast and other parts of the country, wearing masks outdoors helps to reduce the toxin exposure when air quality is hazardous from forest fires. 

One such pollutant that we don’t want to inhale is benzene.

You might be surprised to learn that this is the same benzene that comes from car exhaust and cigarette smoke, that has been linked to a host of health concerns including cancer. 

It’s impossible to avoid all benzene exposure, but couple awareness around benzene with a few key lifestyle changes and you increase your protection quite a bit. 

Let’s dive into the topic of benzene more thoroughly to learn more about: 

  • What is benzene, exactly?
  • Where is benzene found?
  • Why is benzene a problem for our health?
  • And what can we do about it? 

What Is Benzene?

Benzene is a ringed structure that falls into the category of hydrocarbon (composed of hydrogen and carbon atoms). It’s also known as a VOC, or volatile organic compound. 

Benzene is a colorless, flammable liquid that has a sweet smell. It rapidly evaporates into the air. It dissolves in water, although incompletely, and may leave a film on the surface of water. 

Natural sources of benzene are from forest fires and volcanos.

But we are mainly exposed to benzene from human activity. Benzene is in the top 20 for toxic chemicals in the United States, based on the amount in the environment. 

Where Is Benzene Found?

Benzene exposure is possible through a variety of areas in daily life and industry, with emissions from gasoline being the number one source.

We are exposed to benzene through outdoor air pollution as well as indoor air pollution, and surprisingly, indoor benzene exposure may be higher based on the products and sources in the home

Here are the places where benzene is hiding:

  • Benzene is found in oil and gas. We are exposed through car exhaust, the fumes from pumping gas and other petroleum combustion. Oil drilling, fracking and other methods of extraction release benzene into the environment. Benzene is a main contaminant in fracking waste liquid.
  • Benzene is found in cigarette smoke, including second hand smoke (link to article on second hand smoke and pregnancy) and third hand smoke
  • Benzene is found in products derived from petroleum, including: 
    • Plastic
    • Resin
    • Nylon and other synthetic fabric
    • Rubber
    • Lubricants
    • Dyes
    • Detergents
    • Pesticides and herbicides
    • Paint
    • Glues
    • Wax
  • Benzene is also found as a contaminate in consumer products. Recently, several aerosol sunscreens  manufactured by Johnson & Johnson were recalled due to the presence of benzene contamination after a report came out finding benzene in 78 of almost 300 sunscreens tested. Benzene may be in other cosmetic and personal care products including hair products and hand sanitizers, since it is used in the production of plastics and detergents.  
  • Benzene contaminates water and food. While we may primarily think of benzene as an air pollutant, it is known to contaminate water and make its way into the food supply. In 2006, independent reporting revealed benzene in soda and other popular beverages.

Those working in the oil and gas industry, as well as industries that use petroleum or benzene itself in manufacturing processes face the greatest levels of exposure.

For the rest of us, detectable levels are found in the air, water and various products we encounter in daily life. 

Inhalation is the most common route of exposure, but benzene also rapidly penetrates the skin and can be ingested, unknowingly, in food and water. 

Acute Symptoms Of Benzene Toxicity 

Do you feel nauseous or get a headache when pumping gas?

A single short exposure of benzene may cause symptoms, dependent upon the dose and the sensitivity of the individual. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, symptoms from benzene inhalation or ingestion may include

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Headaches 
  • Tremors
  • Confusion
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting and stomach pain
  • Sleepiness
  • Convulsions
  • Unconsciousness

A high level of acute exposure may even cause death. 

The Long-Term Health Effects Of Benzene

When benzene makes its way into the body, it enters the blood stream and is first metabolized by the liver, producing toxic metabolites. Secondarily, benzene is metabolized in the bone marrow.

Again, producing toxicity that creates oxidative damage and damages cells, affecting their function. 

Over time, benzene decreases the bone marrow’s ability to make enough red and white blood cells. This leads to anemia called benzene-induced aplastic anemia, and immune dysfunction. Toxic benzene metabolites also affect stem cells and cause DNA damage. 

Other long-term health effects from exposure include cancer, and specifically leukemia. Benzene is known as a multi-organ carcinogen and affects the liver, kidney, lungs, heart, brain and other organs. 

Benzene has also been linked to irregular menstrual cycles and low birth weight. 

Benzene is highly toxic and there is likely no safe level of exposure, yet there is a lot we can do to reduce exposure and support the body.

How To Protect Yourself From Benzene Exposure

Benzene is widespread in the environment and related to fossil fuel use, so it may seem quite impossible to avoid.

The good news is that there is a lot that can be done to protect yourself from the harmful effects of benzene. A lot of these tips have to do with living a more toxin-free and eco-friendly lifestyle. 

Tips for reducing benzene exposure: 

1. Be aware of air quality. When outdoor air is smoky due to forest fires or air pollution, stay inside. When you do go outside, you can wear a mask to protect yourself. Read the article Air Quality Index – Forest Fires and Particulate Matter to learn more about monitoring air quality.  

2. Filter indoor air to improve indoor air quality. IQAir and Austin Air make effective portable indoor air filters that are worth the investment.  

3. Use natural products in your home and on your body. This goes for everything from building materials to cleaning supplies to personal care products. 

4. Choose where you live carefully. Living near a gas station or high-traffic roadway will increase exposures to benzene and other harmful air pollutants. 

5. Don’t smoke. This likely goes without saying, but it’s also important to now allow smoking in your home and limit or eliminate contact with those who smoke.

6. Reduce fossil fuel consumption and choose renewable energy sources when possible. 

7. If concerned you may have high levels of Benzene, consider a Benzene Poisoning Urine Test (Quest). Results will measure the level of Phenol, the primary metabolite of benzene.

8. Eat broccoli sprouts. Broccoli sprouts contain a high amount of a compound called glucoraphanin, that when activated by chewing or digestion, creates sulforaphane. Sulforaphane is a potent antioxidant activator and detoxifier in the body. Studies show that eating broccoli sprouts increases benzene excretion in the urine! This is a powerful food-as-medicine approach for protection against air pollution and cancer.  

Read What is Sulforaphane and the Benefits of Cruciferous Vegetables to learn more about sulforaphane and how to make broccoli sprouts at home.

The sulforaphane precursor, glucoraphanin, is also available as a supplement. I recommend Every Life Well NRF2 Prime. 

It can be alarming when you see that it’s becoming a more and more toxic world out there, but it is encouraging that nature holds so many answers!

By living a more natural lifestyle and being intentional about products and choices that align with nature, you also reduce your exposure to many environmental toxins, including benzene.

At the same time, easily support your body in handling the benzene and other air pollutants that you can’t avoid by topping your meals with broccoli sprouts. Medicine doesn’t get much simpler or tastier!