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Occup Environ Med 58:2-13 doi:10.1136/oem.58.1.2
  • Review

Benzene in the environment: an assessment of the potential risks to the health of the population

Abstract

OBJECTIVES Benzene has long been recognised as a carcinogen and recent concern has centred on the effects of continuous exposure to low concentrations of benzene both occupationally and environmentally. This paper presents an overview of the current knowledge about human exposure to benzene in the United Kingdom population based on recently published data, summarises the known human health effects, and uses this information to provide a risk evaluation for sections of the general United Kingdom population.

METHOD Given the minor contribution that non-inhalation sources make to the overall daily intake of benzene to humans, only exposure from inhalation has been considered when estimating the daily exposure of the general population to benzene. Exposure of adults, children, and infants to benzene has been estimated for different exposure scenarios with time-activity patterns and inhalation and absorption rates in conjunction with measured benzene concentrations for a range of relevant microenvironments. Exposures during refuelling and driving, as well as the contribution of active and passive tobacco smoke, have been considered as part of the characterisation of risk of the general population.

RESULTS Infants (<1 years old), the average child (11 years old), and non-occupationally exposed adults, receive average daily doses in the range of 15–26, 29–50, and 75–522 μg of benzene, respectively, which correspond to average ranges to benzene in air of 3.40–5.76 μg/m3, 3.37–5.67 μg/m3, and 3.7–41 μg/m3 for infants, children, and adults, respectively. Infants and children exposed to environmental tobacco smoke have concentrations of exposure to benzene comparable with those of an adult passive smoker. This is a significant source of exposure as a 1995 United Kingdom survey has shown that 47% of children aged 2–15 years live in households where at least one person smokes. The consequence of exposure to benzene in infants is more significant than for children or adults owing to their lower body weight, resulting in a higher daily intake for infants compared with children or non-smoking adults. A worst case scenario for exposure to benzene in the general population is that of an urban smoker who works adjacent to a busy road for 8 hours/day—for example, a maintenance worker—who can receive a mean daily exposure of about 820 μg (equal to an estimated exposure of 41 μg/m3). The major health risk associated with low concentrations of exposure to benzene has been shown to be leukaemia, in particular acute non-lymphocytic leukaemia. The lowest concentration of exposure at which an increased incidence of acute non-lymphocytic leukaemia among occupationally exposed workers has been reliably detected, has been estimated to be in the range of 32–80 mg/m3. Although some studies have suggested that effects may occur at lower concentrations, clear estimates of risk have not been determined, partly because of the inadequacy of exposure data and the few cases.

CONCLUSIONS Overall the evidence from human studies suggests that any risk of leukaemia at concentrations of exposure in the general population of 3.7–42 μg/m3—that is at concentrations three orders of magnitude less than the occupational lowest observed effect level—is likely to be exceedingly small and probably not detectable with current methods. This is also likely to be true for infants and children who may be exposed continuously to concentrations of 3.4–5.7 μg/m3. As yet there is no evidence to suggest that continuous exposures to these environmental concentrations of benzene manifest as any other adverse health effect.

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