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Benzene
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What is it and where is it found?

Benzene is a colorless, highly flammable chemical that evaporates into the air very quickly. It is found in coal and petroleum products, cigarette smoke and is used in the production of plastics, resins, dyes, pesticides, lubricants, drugs and detergents.

Benzene is also produced by volcanoes and forest fires.

How do people come into contact with it?

People come into contact with benzene mainly from vehicle exhaust, but also by breathing cigarette smoke, wood smoke, and gasoline fumes.  Benzene can also leak into groundwater and aquifers that are used as drinking water sources.

Refineries in the Pacific Northwest use crude oil from Alaska, which contains some of the highest amounts of benzene in the country. Compared to other US regions, the northwest has greater concentrations of benzene in the air because of the type of gasoline used.

Benzene is also found in certain consumer products, including some paint strippers and carburetor cleaners, denatured alcohol and rubber cement.

What are the health concerns?

Benzene interferes with the bone marrow’s ability to create blood cells. This can cause anemia, a compromised immune system, or impaired blood clotting. When someone comes into contact with benzene regularly over a long period of time, they have an increased risk of developing leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells.

What can I do to protect myself, my family, or my employees?

  • If you smoke cigarettes, consider quitting. Never smoke indoors or around children, and avoid second hand smoke.
  • Avoid fumes from gasoline and vehicle exhaust; try to avoid unnecessary idling of your car.
  • Use certified woodstoves because they burn cleaner. If possible, consider switching to a pellet stove or natural gas heat.
  • When using a woodstove, only burn clean, dry, untreated and unpainted wood or compressed logs.
  • Keep vehicles properly maintained.

If your job involves working with benzene, such as at a gas station, be sure to follow protective advice, including proper ventilation. See federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines for working with benzene, found at: http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/benzene/

What's being done to protect public health?

In order to reduce vapors emitted from gasoline drips and spills at gas pumps, Oregon law prohibits attendants from topping off vehicle fuel tanks when refueling.

By 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is requiring that all oil refineries in the country have emission controls to bring benzene levels in gasoline down to set standards. When this happens, benzene levels in the Pacific Northwest will be comparable to everywhere else in the country.

Several Oregon DEQ programs focus on reducing benzene, including the Portland Air Toxics Solutions program (PATS)

Where can I get more information?

Department of Environmental Quality, Benzene in Oregon's Air (pdf)

Department of Environmental Quality, Driver's Guide to Clean Air (pdf)