What Household Products are Sources of Household Benzene Exposure?

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Purpose of this Article

As the American population becomes more educated and seeks answers to difficult questions concerning diseases in their families and their children, more Americans are concerned about the pollutants in our ambient air. Even the EPA’s publication “Indoor Air Pollution” (available at https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-01/documents/indoor_air_pollution.pdf) discusses indoor pollution but gives scant practical advice on how to prevent or minimize it.

In contrast, this article attempts to help understand what certain pollutants are and how to prevent or minimize exposure to them. Affected disorders include those ranging from allergies and multiple chemical sensitivity to lymphomas and leukemias in adults or even congenital heart defects (CHD) and neural tube defects (NTD) such as spina bifida or anencephaly. Suffice to say, it is in everyone’s interest to minimize exposure to pollutants. What pollutants specifically? Let us focus on volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. The one which I can speak best about due to my practical experience is benzene.

What the Literature Says About the Risks of Low-Level Exposures in the Home

Two studies have reported associations between ambient levels of benzene and NTDs/CHDs (Lupo et al. 2010b; Wennborg et al. 2005). Dr. Lupo found that mothers living in certain parts of Houston with ambient levels of benzene between 0.9-2.33 ppb were 2.3 times more likely to have offspring with spina bifida than mothers living with the lowest ambient benzene levels (95% CI:1.22, 4.33). Dr. Wennborg found that mothers exposed to benzene had 5.3 times greater prevalence of neural crest malformations than children born to mothers not exposed to benzene (95% CI: 1.4, 21.1). Other diseases benzene is known to cause include: Aplastic Anemia, Acute Myelogenous Leukemia, Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia, Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

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Where Benzene Exposures Are Coming From

The largest source of benzene to households in the above-mentioned populations is natural gas development and petroleum refining. However, there are other sources which introduce benzene into the home. A 1978 study requested by the Deputy Associate Directorate for Economic Analysis and performed by Battelle© focused on the following household products to estimate the benzene content levels:
• Paints and Allied Products- 0.2% benzene
• Waxes and Polishes (auto care products)- 0.17% benzene
• Auto Care Products- 0.17-0.25% benzene
• Home Fuels (gas & stove lantern fuel)- 0.1% benzene
• Adhesives and Sealants- 0.11-0.22% benzene
• Leather and Animal Skin Dressings- 0.11% benzene
• Cigarette lighter fluid- 0.5% benzene

These estimates were estimated by: 1. Stated solvent use in each product; 2. Industry disclosed data of the benzene content of particular solvents; and finally 3. Published literature, prior reports and shelf surveys. Importantly, the study states “shelf surveys were not helpful since most manufacturers indicate on the label that the product contains petroleum distillates. This is a very broad term and could indicate any or a mixture of any of the hydrocarbon solvents discussed in this report.”

Many trade names can indicate benzene content in a product. Some includeSince this study was completed, it has been discovered that additional household products which VOCs and potentially benzene include nail polishes, hair spray, degreasers, air fresheners, aerosols, and PVC cements and primers. See https://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/indoors/voc.htm

Conclusion–Remedial Measures to Clean Indoor Air

1. Filter Your Air with Plants– According to NASA, the Chinese Evergreen, Devil’s Ivy, Cornstalk Dracaena, English Ivy, Variegated Snake Plant, Red-Edged Dracaena, Peace Lily and Florist’s Chrysanthemum are the best plants to remediate benzene in the air. See https://www.lovethegarden.com/community/fun-facts/nasa-guide-air-filtering-houseplants

2. Filter Your Air with Filters– Various filters are available for filtering benzene from indoor air, but they can be expensive and require filter maintenance. Which lead us back to prevention—try not to smoke cigarettes or cigars, and try not to use consumer products containing petroleum solvents.

3. Use Natural Cleaning Substitutes– Vinegar mixed with water and lemon makes a wonderful cleaner and smells fine.

4. Store VOC-Containing Products Outdoors- If you must use VOC-containing products, store them outdoor.

5. Read Labels to Avoid Petroleum-Based Solvents/VOCs– If you have made it through this article, you now know what to look for on the labels of consumer products that you will buy and bring into your home and around your family. Choose wisely and avoid products with potentially hazardous toxicants (including benzene hidden in another trade name) as ingredients.