The symptoms and severity of benzene poisoning vary depending on the type and duration of the exposure. Benzene poisoning can occur from inhalation, ingestion or skin contact with the chemical. Among the symptoms are drowsiness, dizziness, headaches, vomiting and an abnormal heartbeat. The serious symptoms can include an altered mental state, a loss of consciousness and even death.
Benzene is a highly flammable, sweet-scented, petroleum-based chemical produced from both natural and manmade sources. The chemical evaporates quickly, but the vapor is denser than air, causing it to sink into low-lying areas. Low levels in the air typically are harmless, but high levels of benzene can cause poisoning.
Inhaling high levels of benzene can cause drowsiness, dizziness, irregular or rapid heartbeat, headaches and tremors. Severe cases of benzene poisoning through inhalation can cause confusion, loss of consciousness and death. Symptoms typically appear no more than a few hours after initial exposure, and their severity typically depends on the amount of benzene in the air.
Benzene poisoning through ingestion might cause vomiting, stomach irritation, vertigo and insomnia. It also might cause irregular or rapid heartbeat, seizures and, at high enough levels, death. Vomiting can cause the affected food or fluid to aspirate into the lungs, causing coughing or difficulty breathing. If benzene poisoning through ingestion is suspected, experts caution against inducing vomiting. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) should not be performed, because this can also lead to vomiting.
Long-term benzene exposure can affect the blood, causing adverse effects on the bone marrow and a decrease in red blood cells, which can lead to anemia. Long-term benzene poisoning can also weaken the immune system, increasing the risk of infection from other sources. In women, prolonged periods of high levels of benzene can alter the menstrual cycle and shrink the ovaries. Benzene is a carcinogenic and can cause cancer if a person is exposed to it over a long period of time.
Sources of benzene include volcanoes, forest fires and smoke from crude oil fires, gasoline fires and cigarettes. Benzene also is found in products such as glue, furniture wax, paint and detergent. People who work in factories that use benzene are at the highest risk of exposure.
If exposure to benzene is suspected, certain steps can help reduce the risk of benzene poisoning. In cases of potential benzene inhalation, moving away from the area and into fresh air reduces the risk of death. If benzene comes into contact with skin or eyes, irritation or injury to the tissue can occur.
Someone who has come into contact with benzene should remove his or her clothing and wash any exposed areas with soap and water. Emergency medical attention should be sought. Although there is no known antidote for benzene poisoning, supportive medical attention can reduce the risk of death.