Benzene is an organic chemical compound that gets into water due to runoff or leaking from hazardous waste sites, underground storage tanks, and industrial factories.
Here, we’ve shared all the important information you should know about benzene in water, including what it is, how it enters drinking water supplies, how it might harm your health, and more.
📌 Key Takeaways:
- Benzene is a drinking water contaminant that’s used in industrial processes and is found in some drugs, pesticides, dyes, detergents, and rubbers.
- This colorless chemical enters water as a result of runoff from landfill, industrial emissions, and leaking from underground gasoline tanks. Benzene in the air can pass into soils and waters, and vice versa.
- In trace levels below 0.5 PPM, benzene has no taste, smell, or color in water, meaning you won’t know if your drinking water contains this contaminant unless you test for it.
Table of Contents
- ❔ What Is Benzene In Water?
- 🚰 How Does Benzene Get Into Water?
- 🔎 How To Know If Your Water Contains Benzene
- 🚱 Is Benzene In Drinking Water Dangerous?
- 📉 Is Benzene In Tap Water Regulated?
- 🧪 How To Test For Benzene In Tap Water
- 👩🏽⚕️ What To Do If You’re Concerned About Benzene In Your Water
- ⚠️ Other Ways You Might Be Exposed To Benzene
- 📑 Final Word: Removing Benzene From Water
❔ What Is Benzene In Water?
Benzene is a chemical compound that contaminates both surface water and groundwater (underground water supplies).
Most of the benzene that contaminates water supplies comes from human activities, but benzene is also formed as a result of natural processes, such as forest fires and volcano eruptions.
Benzene is naturally found in crude oil, cigarette smoke, and gasoline. It’s widely used across the US, and has been banned in products supplied for home use, such as children’s toys.
The main reason for this ban is that benzene is a known human carcinogen. Unfortunately, its toxic nature has only recently been realized, which means that it’s likely that cosmetics and cleaning solvents containing this chemical still exist in people’s cupboards today.
Plus, a 2022 study discovered that benzene is still used as an ingredient in hundreds of US personal care products today.
Whether or not it’s entering our homes through the products we buy, benzene is still widespread in the environment, which is the reason why it’s present in so many drinking water sources.
🚰 How Does Benzene Get Into Water?
It’s thought that everyone is exposed to a small amount of benzene in the environment every day.
There are a few different ways that benzene gets into drinking water supplies:
- Industrial waste and emissions
- Runoff or soil seepage from fields and farms that use pesticides that contain benzene
- Leaking from underground petroleum tanks
- Runoff from hazardous waste sites and landfill
- Natural sources, like volcanoes and forest fires
- Deposits of airborne benzene in snow and rainfall
Benzene might contaminate surface waters or groundwater supplies. According to a geological survey, the highest levels of benzene are usually found in brackish, old, and reducing groundwater.
Benzene breaks down slowly in soil. When water flows through soils containing benzene, this chemical may pass into the water, contaminating it.
Most water treatment plants have facilities that are inadequate for benzene removal, which is why this chemical is still found in treated drinking water supplies.
If you have a private well, your water isn’t treated by a public supplier. So, if you live in an area with known benzene contamination, your well water could contain high concentrations of this chemical.
🔎 How To Know If Your Water Contains Benzene
Here are a few of the different ways to learn whether or not your water contains benzene.
By Taste Or Smell
Once benzene levels in water reach 0.5–4.5 PPM (parts per million), most people can begin to taste this chemical.
Benzene has a slightly sweet taste and odor, and may give water a yellowish tinge if present in large quantities.
Since benzene is commonly found in water that’s contaminated by petrol spills, you might also notice that the surface of your water has a metallic sheen that is disrupted when you swill the water but comes back together when the water is still.
By Reading Your Water Quality Report
All water utilities are legally required to produce annual Water Quality Reports (Consumer Confidence Reports) based on their testing conducted throughout the year.
If benzene is detected in your drinking water by the utility, it should be listed in the Report. You’ll find information on the range detected, from the lowest to the highest concentrations, along with the average of this range.
Reading your Water Quality Report is the fastest method of checking water’s benzene levels that’s accessible to anyone who uses a municipal water supply. Find your local report online by searching your local water utility’s name (or your local authority) followed by “Consumer Confidence Report”.
By Testing Your Water
If you don’t trust the information in your Water Quality Report or you want a better idea of the benzene concentration in the water that comes out of your faucets, consider testing your water.
There aren’t many DIY benzene water test kits. You’ll probably have to send off a sample of your drinking water to a laboratory to be tested for benzene and other volatile organic chemicals.
A laboratory test will give you the most accurate understanding of your water’s benzene concentration. We’ve shared more on how to test your water for benzene later in this guide.
🚱 Is Benzene In Drinking Water Dangerous?
Benzene is considered one of the more dangerous volatile organic compounds because it causes the cells in our bodies to stop working as they should.
One example of this is that benzene can prevent the bone marrow from being able to produce adequate red blood cells. Chronic exposure to benzene could lead to anemia and other related issues.
Benzene can also alter the blood levels of antibodies, meaning that white blood cells are lost, which compromises the immune system.
According to a CDC benzene fact sheet, the extent of benzene poisoning depends on the amount of benzene you’re exposed to, the route of exposure, and the length of time of exposure, as well as your age and whether or not you have any existing medical conditions.
Some of the immediate symptoms or health effects of benzene exposure in water are:
- Stomach irritation
- Irregular or rapid heartbeat
Exposure to benzene at very high levels might even cause convulsions and death.
In the short term, benzene could cause temporary nervous system disorders and immune system depression.
Long-term exposure to benzene has other serious health risks, including excessive bleeding that increases infection risk, and cancer (according to the Department of Health and Human Services).
There have also been studies that show that women breathing in high levels of benzene are at risk of irregular menstrual periods and decreased ovary size, and animal studies have found that benzene exposure may be linked to delayed bone formation, damage to bone marrow, and low birth weights in the fetuses of pregnant animals.
📉 Is Benzene In Tap Water Regulated?
Yes, benzene is regulated in drinking water by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The EPA has established a Maximum Contaminant Level of 5 PPB (parts per billion) for benzene in municipal water supplies. According to an EPA consumer factsheet, this regulation has been effective since 1989.
Your water supplier should test for benzene along with other contaminants with known health effects.
If benzene concentrations are consistently higher than the Maximum Contaminant Level, a water utility will need to consider installing a suitable benzene reduction filter in their water treatment plant. The EPA recommends granular activated charcoal combined with packed tower aeration.
The EPA also has Maximum Contaminant Level Goals, which are non-enforceable levels that water utilities are recommended to aim for based on the known health effects of a specific contaminant. The MCLG for benzene is 0, meaning that the EPA believes benzene may have potential health effects at levels above 0 in drinking water.
Note that water utilities aren’t legally required to reduce their benzene levels to 0 – they only have to reduce them to 5 PPB. Organizations like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) believe the EPA legal limit for benzene is too lenient and should be much lower. The EWG’s own proposed Health Guideline for benzene in water is 0.15 PPB.
🧪 How To Test For Benzene In Tap Water
There’s one effective way to test for benzene in tap water: with a laboratory water test.
You can use a lab test to detect benzene alone, or test your water for benzene and other specific health-related contaminants, depending on what you believe might be present.
The usual laboratory testing process is as follows:
- Purchase a lab testing kit and wait for it to be delivered to your home.
- Take a sample of your tap water and send it back to the laboratory in the included vials.
- Wait 1-2 weeks for your test results to be emailed or posted to you.
We recommend testing your water for benzene and other chemicals if you use a private well supply and you live in an area that has a known problem with petrochemical contamination or natural gas development.
👩🏽⚕️ What To Do If You’re Concerned About Benzene In Your Water
If you have a specific reason to be concerned about drinking benzene in your water, there are a few things you can do:
- If you get water from a municipal supplier, reach out to the supplier and express your concerns about benzene contamination. Ask them what they’re doing to protect local water systems from this chemical.
- If you’re on a private well system, it’s your responsibility to test for benzene and remove it if it’s detected. You might be able to get a free or discounted laboratory water test from your local authority if benzene is a known pollutant in your area.
- Arrange an appointment with your doctor if you think you’ve ingested benzene, especially if you’re experiencing health effects.
- Consider how else you might be exposed to benzene (see below).
⚠️ Other Ways You Might Be Exposed To Benzene
Aside from your drinking water, benzene exposure may also occur in the following routes:
- In outdoor air – Most of us are exposed to low levels of benzene in the air, due to pollution from tobacco smoke, motor vehicle exhaust fumes, and factory emissions.
- In indoor air – Believe it or not, we’re actually at a greater risk of benzene exposure indoors, since benzene is found in many detergents, glues, and paints.
- In certain occupations – Benzene poses an occupational safety hazard and people who work in factories or facilities that make rubber, work around printing inks or gasoline, or come into contact with toxic smoke, are at risk of benzene exposure.
- In tobacco smoke – Smokers are exposed to more benzene than non-smokers.
- In some foods – Eating processed foods containing benzene, including organ meats, chicken, fruits, cheese, eggs, and carbonated soda beverages, may also put you at risk of ingesting this chemical.
📑 Final Word: Removing Benzene From Water
If you detect benzene in your water supply, it’s important to install a water system that will reduce this contaminant as much as possible.
Benzene is, thankfully, easy to remove from a drinking water supply using one of several water treatment methods.
👨🔧 Some of the water filters that remove benzene are:
- Reverse osmosis systems
- Granular activated carbon (GAC) filters
- Ultrafiltration filters
Benzene causes a whole host of dangerous health problems, so find a water system that can effectively reduce, if not remove, this chemical from your drinking water supply.