Drinking Water Contaminants- Ethylbenzene

This is a factsheet about a chemical that may be found in some public or private drinking water supplies. It may cause health problems if found in amounts greater than the health standard set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

What is Ethylbenzene and how is it used?

Ethylbenzene is a colorless organic liquid with a sweet, gasoline-like odor. The greatest use - over 99 percent - of ethylbenzene is to make styrene, another organic liquid used as a building block for many plastics. It is also used as a solvent for coatings, and in making rubber and plastic wrap.

The list of trade names given below may help you find out whether you are using this chemical at home or work.

Trade Names and Synonyms:

  • Ethylbenzol
  • Phenylethane

Why is Ethylbenzene being Regulated?

In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. This law requires EPA to determine safe levels of chemicals in drinking water that do or may cause health problems. These non-enforceable levels, based solely on possible health risks and exposure, are called Maximum Contaminant Level Goals.

The MCLG for ethylbenzene has been set at 0.7 parts per million (ppm) because EPA believes this level of protection would not cause any of the potential health problems described below.

Based on this MCLG, EPA has set an enforceable standard called a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL). MCLs are set as close to the MCLGs as possible, considering the ability of public water systems to detect and remove contaminants using suitable treatment technologies.

The MCL has also been set at 0.7 ppm because EPA believes, given present technology and resources, this is the lowest level to which water systems can reasonably be required to remove this contaminant should it occur in drinking water.

These drinking water standards and the regulations for ensuring these standards are met, are called National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. All public water supplies must abide by these regulations.

What are the Health Effects?

Short-term: EPA has found ethylbenzene to potentially cause the following health effects when people are exposed to it at levels above the MCL for relatively short periods of time: drowsiness, fatigue, headache, and mild eye and respiratory irritation.

Long-term: Ethylbenzene has the potential to cause the following effects from a lifetime exposure at levels above the MCL: damage to the liver, kidneys, central nervous system, and eyes.

How much Ethylbenzene is produced and released to the environment?

Production of ethylbenzene has increased: from 6.9 billion lbs. in 1982 to 11.8 billion lbs in 1993. It is released into the air primarily from its use in gasoline. More localized may be due to wastewater and spills from its production and industrial use.

From 1987 to 1993, according to EPA's Toxic Chemical Release Inventory, ethylbenzene releases to water and land totaled over 761,000 lbs. These releases were primarily from petroleum refining industries. The largest releases occurred in Texas. The largest direct releases of water occurred in Virginia.

What happens to Ethylbenzene when it is released to the environment?

Ethylbenzene will evaporate rapidly from water and will be degraded by microbes. It binds only moderately to aquatic sediment and to soils. Thus, it may leach to groundwater if released to land. Ethylbenzene has little potential for accumulating in aquatic life.

How will Ethylbenzene be Detected in and Removed from My Drinking Water?

The regulation for ethylbenzene became effective in 1992. Between 1993 and 1995, EPA required your water supplier to collect water samples every 3 months for one year and analyze them to find out if ethylbenzene is present above 0.5 ppb. If it is present above this level, the system must continue to monitor this contaminant.

If contaminant levels are found to be consistently above the MCL, your water supplier must take steps to reduce the amount of ethylbenzene so that it is consistently below that level. The following treatment methods have been approved by EPA for removing ethylbenzene: Granular activated charcoal in combination with Packed Tower Aeration.

How will I know if Ethylbenzene is in my drinking water?

If the levels of ethylbenzene exceed the MCL, 0.7 ppm, the system must notify the public via newspapers, radio, TV and other means. Additional actions, such as providing alternative drinking water supplies, may be required to prevent serious risks to public health.

Drinking Water Standards:

  • Mclg: 0.7 ppm
  • Mcl: 0.7 ppm

Ethylbenzene Releases to Water and Land, 1987 to 1993 (in pounds):

  Water Land
TOTALS (in pounds) 47,293 714,580
Top Ten States
TX 9,870 480,164
VI 1,233 72,245
IL 31 44,789
PR 0 23,980
VA 17,997 1,950
DE 3,460 13,324
NJ 1,892 11,510
NM 0 13,076
WY 250 12,755
LA 4,383 4,552
Major Industries
Petroleum refining 55,201 718,884
Plastics, resins 12,384 9,212
Indust. Organics 10,683 9,781
Pharmaceuticals 14,090 0
Metal containers 0 11,510

* Water/Land totals only include facilities with releases greater than a certain amount - usually 1000 to 10,000 lbs.

As part of the Drinking Water and Health pages, this fact sheet is part of a larger U.S. EPA publication:
EPA National Primary Drinking Water Regulations

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