All in a Typical Day With Benzene
Benzene is one of those chemicals we hear about often in the discussion over natural gas development. It is said to be leaking from compressor stations and polluting our air, by those opposed to the development of this clean burning resource. Realistically, not only have benzene levels been proven to have little or no connection to shale gas development but the effects have been widely exaggerated. As a health professional and mother, I feel the impacts of chemicals like benzene are something we should be educated on, so I took the time to do a little research into its risks and sources of emission.
Yesterday I was admiring our towering pine trees planted 60-100 years ago. As I thought of the history of pines in Pennsylvania I remembered they were used to make turpentine and for tanning in the old days. I wondered about the chemical composition of pine and how that relates to chemicals today, especially benzene. That lead to an internet search that showed benzene is produced naturally by volcanoes, forest fires, and any incomplete combustion like cigarette smoke. Benzene was first identified in the early 1800’s by Michael Faraday, a famous scientist of the time. He wondered about the composition of whale oil that was used in streetlamps. He heated it and created a flammable gas he called bicarburet of hydrogen, later renamed benzene.
Benzene ranks as one of the top 20 chemicals in use today for production processes in the U.S. 20-30 million tons of benzene is produced annually in the U.S. It is a super chemical and father of many other chemical compounds in many of the common products we use every day.
Based on stats from greenerindustry.org, the global market grew from 4 million tons in 1960 to over 30 million tons in 2000. Most of the benzene produced is from Western Europe, North America and Asia.
With further research I identified where benzene may be a part of my daily life. I washed my hair with products created with benzene, brushed my teeth with toothbrush and toothpaste, rinsed from a plastic cup, brushed my hair, enjoyed my painted walls and stained kitchen cabinets, walked across the soft rug, looked out the window, grabbed the plastic milk jug for a cool glass of milk, turned on the faucet and heard the water come through the PVC pipes, refreshed the dog’s water in the big plastic bowl, used the plastic spatula to make some eggs, walked around in my slippers, drove the car on the asphalt roads to get the newspaper to read (ink and paper) while I watched the morning news on the TV, all products of benzene.
I also checked my daughter’s make-up as she left for work with her hair up in an elastic hair tie, used hot water to do the dishes, took my vitamins and medicine, fixed that annoying squeaky door with WD40, cleaned the laminate kitchen counters, threw the cereal box with the plastic liner away, removed nail polish and applied a new color, grabbed a strawberry flavored drink and put some cranberry juice in the refrigerator for later, opened my laptop to check my emails, checked prices for airplane tickets for our vacation, and sent out some greeting cards. Before I went outside I put on some sunscreen. Everything I mentioned is a product produced with benzene.
So I guess I should be terribly alarmed with benzene products surrounding me and infiltrating my life! But further research showed that most products do not emit benzene, or only a trace amount, and the EPA allows an exposure/consumption level of 5 parts per billion even in our drinking water. Then, there are the “natural” sources of benzene like cigarettes, cooking on an outdoor grill, or even filling up your gas tank. They are direct sources of exposure. The lovely campfire we enjoy so much became a culprit. Soft drinks and juice drinks with certain natural juices like strawberries, cranberries, or other ground fruits showed higher amounts of benzene. Things I love were starting to be sources of exposure.
So benzene is everywhere and is a component of most of the household things we use. How bad is it? Mostly we get a minute exposure from a variety of sources. City traffic, cigarettes (1 & 2nd hand smoke), filling up and traveling in cars and trace amounts in our food, usually as a result of cooking methods like grilling. Even though we love campfires in the country our exposure is far less than those who live in a city.
So I pondered the dilemma. Do I change my entire lifestyle in protest and protection against benzene? I think not. I realize that there is no zero-risk product or lifestyle in this world. Even breathing and eating have their inherent risks. Once, a person said to me, “We trust the glue to hold when we sit in a chair. Do you test the chair every time before you sit down?” If activists are serious about stopping benzene exposure, they should prioritize the elimination of benzene emitters by greatest exposure and risk. Putting out those cigarettes and turning off their cars are big steps, long before natural gas development makes the priority list.
Everything we do is based on a risk-benefit-analysis. That is human nature and with life expectancy in the U.S. increasing we must be doing something right.