In fact, benzene ranks among the top 20 chemicals produced, and is used as a solvent for a wide variety of industrial applications - notably the rubber industry, shoe manufacturing, oil refineries and other plants where chemicals are routinely used. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS) website, 237,000 workers in the United States were identified as being exposed to benzene in 1987, the year a study was commissioned and data analyzed. It is not known if the numbers have changed in that time.
"But you've never been around a chemical plant, so you should be safe from benzene, right?
If you live in a large urban centre with heavily travelled roads and gridlock traffic, you can be potentially exposed. While levels of benzene found in air are generally low, they can spike much higher in a big city with higher vehicular use.
Cigarette smoke is another source, and you don't have to be the smoker to be exposed.
According to the ACS, cigarettes are known to release between 50 and 150 micrograms of benzene per cigarette, and therefore remains a sustained source for benzene contamination of the air - and your lungs. As nasty as some chemical and industrial plants can be on the benzene front, cigarette smoke accounts for as much as half of benzene exposure in the United States, and 89 per cent of exposure among smokers. Second-hand smoke represents 10 percent of benzene exposure among non-smokers in the U.S.
Okay, so you don't smoke and you don't hang around anyone who does.
Think you're safe?
Not if you drink a lot of soda. That's because benzene can form as a by-product of the manufacturing formulas of soft drinks and consumer beverages containing Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and the benzoate salts that are often added as an inhibitor to the growth of bacteria, yeasts or moulds. When these combinations are present in the final product, benzene formulation can be triggered by exposure to heat or light in the shipping, or storage environment.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets the bar for benzene at five parts per billion (ppb). Anything above that - even 6ppb - is considered unsafe. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been aware of the problem since 1990 and keeps in close contact with the beverage industry with regard to their formulations. The Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) sampled more than 200 soft drinks and other beverages between 2005 and 2007. Most contained benzene levels well below the standard. The few that were above 5ppb were required to alter their formulation.
There are notable exceptions, however. Back in July a number of beverage manufacturers including PepsiCo, Sunny Delight Beverages Inc, Rockstar Inc., Polar Beverages Inc. and Shasta Beverages Inc. were named as defendants in a lawsuit over the levels of benzene found in their products.
PepsiCo's Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi was found to contain four times the acceptable level of benzene. The manufacturer has since re-formulated the soft drink to mitigate benzene contamination.
For some, benzene is in the water they drink.
For a pocket of residents in Fayetteville, North Carolina benzene contamination represents a stinky odor to their water. For over a decade now a collection of Fayetteville homeowners have had water quality problems originating from a nearby filling station leaking gasoline into the water supply. The gas station is long gone, but the contamination lingers.
So now comes the big question. Does benzene cause cancer?
According to the American Cancer Society, the National Toxicology Program, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer - it does.
Initially, studies of industrial employees exposed to high levels of benzene in the workplace linked the chemical to an increased risk of leukemia amongst workers in the chemical, shoemaking and oil refinery sectors. However, two recent studies have focussed on workers exposed to lower levels of benzene.
The deaths of about 750 Pliofilm rubber workers at three facilities in Ohio were tracked over the course of thirty years. With little evidence of exposure to any chemical other then benzene, the study determined an increase in leukemia, and multiple myeloma - a cancer of immune system cells in bone marrow.
And a study by the American Cancer Institute in conjunction with the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine followed an astounding 30,000 exposed workers through 233 factories in China, and compared them to a similarly sized control group of workers that were not exposed. The huge sample size helped determine that yes, there is a risk of cancer from benzene exposure even at low levels at less than 10 parts per million.
READ MORE LEGAL NEWS
In the end, whether inhaled or ingested, benzene is considered a cancer-causing agent in humans. As noted above, the EPA regulates the presence of benzene in consumables at 5ppb, with the ultimate goal of 0ppb. Meanwhile, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have identified a limit of occupational exposure to benzene at 1ppm during an average workday, and recommends personal protective equipment such as respirators.
Any consumable product contaminated with benzene, or work environment that carries higher levels for benzene than those limits noted above, are defying strict regulations, and may be exposing individuals unnecessarily to a known cancer-causing agent.