Objective: To study the blood benzene levels resulting from environmental and occupational benzene exposure.
Methods: Benzene in venous blood was measured in 243 nonoccupationally exposed subjects ("normal" people) and in 167 workers occupationally exposed to benzene. All exposed workers gave blood samples at the end of the work shift and on the following morning before resuming work. Blood benzene was assayed by gas chromatography (GC)-mass spectrometry. Occupational benzene exposure was monitored by environmental personal samplers and measured by GC analysis.
Results: The mean occupational benzene exposure for all 167 workers studied was 186 ng/l (58 ppb; range 5 1535 ng/l, 2-500 ppb). Overall, the mean blood benzene level of all workers was 420 ng/1 at the end of the shift and 287 ng/l on the morning thereafter. The blood benzene levels measured the morning after turned out to be significantly lower (t=3.6; P < 0.0001) than those measured at the end of the shift. The mean blood benzene level of the 243 "normal" subjects was 165 ng/l, which was significantly lower than that measured in the workers on the morning thereafter (t=5.8: P < 0.0000001). The mean blood benzene concentration was significantly higher in smokers than in nonsmokers in both the general population (264 versus 123 ng/l) and in the exposed workers. In the group of nonsmoking workers, whose workplace exposure to benzene was lower than 100 ng/l, blood benzene levels were similar (210-202 ng/l) to those measured in the nonsmoking general population (165 ng/l). End-of-shift blood benzene correlated significantly with environmental exposure (y=0.91x + 251; r=0.581; n=162; P < 0.00001). Finally, there was also a significant correlation between blood benzene measured at the end of the shift and that determined on the morning thereafter (y=0.45x + 109; r=0.572; n=156; P < 0.00001).
Conclusion: Nonsmoking workers occupationally exposed to benzene at environmental levels lower than 100 ng/l (mean 35 ng/l) and the nonsmoking general population exposed to ubiquitous benzene pollution have similar blood benzene concentrations. This suggests that it is impossible to distinguish between occupational and environmental exposure when the benzene level in the workplace is less than 100 ng/l.