Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, 2009
Spike working at the oil and gas production plant
Pollution in Australia comes from many different sources. Some is a result of industrial activity but there are also sources of pollution that are not industrial, like cars, woodheaters and even lawn mowers.
The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) is tracking pollution right across Australia by collecting data about 93 different toxic substances emitted into the environment. The NPI can show you the source and location of these substance emissions.
The substances that are studied were chosen because of the problems they can potentially cause for our health and the health of the environment.
Benzene is one of the substances that the NPI tracks across Australia. Here are some fascinating facts about benzene and some hints on how you can help minimise any harmful effects of benzene on our health and on the environment.
Benzene can be found in items that we use every day, such as glue and cleaning products. It is a dangerous, poisonous substance, and research shows that it can be harmful to us as well as to animals, plants, and the environment.
Oil and gas extraction is the largest industrial source of benzene in Australia. The industries where benzene may be used include: rubber, oil, chemicals, footwear and petrol. These industries all produce, use and handle benzene.
Benzene can occur naturally in the environment. It is emitted into the atmosphere by erupting volcanoes, from the smoke of forest fires and, interestingly, is also found in some plants and animals.
Benzene can quickly evaporate into the air and be carried over long distances. If it is released into soil it can break down quickly and may contaminate groundwater.
Because benzene is found in petrol and oil, it can be released into the atmosphere by buses, cars, motorbikes, trains and aeroplanes. It can be emitted in exhaust fumes, and by evaporation of fuels from machinery, motors and petrol tanks.
Common products containing benzene include glues, cigarettes, cleaning products, paint strippers and some art supplies such as ink and paint. Small amounts can also be found in foods such as canned beef and even in our drinking water if it has been contaminated. Benzene is also used as a solvent for grease and oil.
Benzene is used in the manufacture of numerous chemicals needed to make plastics such as polystyrene for packaging, synthetic fibres, such as rayon and nylon used for making clothes, and the detergents we use to clean our homes. Medicines and pesticides can also be sources of benzene.
Therefore, when we empty water from our sink after washing the dishes, or use chemicals to kill insects and weeds in the garden we could be releasing benzene into the environment.
Cigarette smoke can also emit benzene into our environment.
Spike monitoring pollution
In the atmosphere, benzene can react with other chemicals to create smog. This could break down naturally but it might also attach to rain and snow and be carried to the ground to contaminate water and soil.
When aquatic life, like fish, shellfish and other creatures in our rivers, lakes and oceans, is exposed to benzene, it makes them sick and can stop them from having babies. It can alter their behaviour, change their appearance and shorten their lives.
When plants are exposed to benzene in the soil their growth can be slowed and they may even die.
People can be exposed to benzene in the following ways:
- Breathing air that contains benzene — in exhaust fumes, by smoking, or even by breathing second hand cigarette smoke.
- Drinking water or eating foods that have been contaminated, even in small amounts.
- Coming into contact with products such as petrol, which can enter the body if it touches the skin directly.
- Living near industries that produce or use benzene, or living near freeways and busy roads.
- Working in an industry where benzene is produced or used, such as in an oil refinery or footwear manufacturer.
There are all sorts of things that we can do at home, school, and in our local community to help minimise the harmful effects of pollution on our environment.
Why not investigate ways you can take action every day to reduce pollution that impacts people, animals and the environment? More about reducing pollution.
For more information about benzene see Australia's benzene emission report on the main NPI web site.
You will also find detailed information about the remaining 92 substances that the NPI tracks around Australia in the fact sheets on the main NPI web site.
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