What is Benzene?

Benzene is a flammable, colorless, slightly sweet smelling gas that has been used in a wide variety of industrial uses since its discovery in the 19th century. Benzene is also naturally produced when wood is completely burned, such as during forest fires or during volcano eruptions, and most people are exposed to benzene through the air from cigarette smoke or car exhaust. This extremely toxic compound was first discovered in the gas emitted by burning coal; in fact, the first use of benzene was in a compound called coal tar used in lamps that lit the houses and streets throughout much of the civilized world. As coal tar became more frequently distributed, many scientists and doctors looked into this fascinating yet deadly chemical.

Because it is an amazingly efficient solvent, benzene was initially used to degrease sophisticated and delicate mechanical parts, and the expansion of the automobile industry in the early 20th century further utilized benzene as a vital additive to gasoline. Benzene increased the octane rating of gasoline and also eliminated "knocking," the sound that is a tell-tale indication of inefficient combustion. Unfortunately benzene is extremely toxic, and the proliferation of this deadly chemical was widespread up until the Second World War, when tetraethyl lead was introduced.

After World War II, benzene experienced a rebirth as a primary component of many artificial compounds, such as plastic, synthetic rubber, dyes, detergents, and some pharmaceuticals. While usually used in amounts that are safe for use, the workers who produce these products often suffer increased occurrences of various types of illnesses, including leukemia. To prevent benzene proliferation from spreading into the air or into groundwater supplies, the Federal government strictly regulates benzene. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration deems benzene so hazardous that workers may only be exposed to one part per million parts air in one eight hour work day, and the Environmental Protection Agency mandates that they must be notified if only ten pounds of benzene is accidentally spilled or released anywhere.

Benzene is one of the most dangerous but widely proliferated industrial compounds in existence. Even though it is extremely regulated, benzene still poses a threat to many innocent people. It is estimated that up to half a million people each year are exposed to this deadly chemical, and research shows that as little as one day of exposure can have effects that last a lifetime.

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Page description: Benzene definition, Benzene in history, Benzene Toxic Gas, Use of benzene.