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Benzofuran consists of an oily chemical compound extracted from coal tar, which is converted into a synthetic resin used in manufacturing. This colorless liquid might be added to paint and varnish to enhance resistance to corrosion, and provides water resistance to fabric and paper. Food packaging suppliers use the resin as an adhesive, and it represents a common substance in plastic food containers designed for repeated use. A derivative of benzofuran occurs naturally in some plants.
Food and drug regulatory agencies permit the use of benzofuran in food containers and packaging at prescribed levels, but no human studies have been done to measure risks of exposure. This chemical may be present in the water, air, or soil near manufacturing facilities that extract resin from coal tar. Scientists who studied waterways near these areas found no contamination in aquatic life. The chemical has been found in breast milk, however.
Health organizations list possible exposure from eating food sold in packages where the adhesive is present or using plastic containers manufactured with benzofuran. The substance is also added to the peelings of citrus fruit, which represents another route of exposure. Direct exposure might occur by contact through the skin.
Benzofuran may be inhaled in the air near hazardous waste facilities that store it or adjacent to industrial plants converting coal tar into resin. It is also found in cigarettes. Scientists advise against drinking water contaminated with the compound or touching it directly. Nursing mothers with the substance in breast milk are advised to stop nursing their babies.
The level of benzofuran in breast milk and blood can be tested, but the analysis is considered complex and not readily available during routine physical examinations. These tests only identify recent exposure, and there is no reliable evidence to determine how long benzofuran remains in the human body. It is not classified as a cancer-causing agent and might provide anti-cancer benefits, according to studies using derivatives of the chemical found in plants.
Researchers in India used synthesized derivatives of resin from the dracaena plant in animal studies. They found the substance inhibited the growth of tumors in rats deficient in vitamin E. Scientists discovered disease-fighting cells in the body were not affected, but the chemical caused the partial death of harmful cells that cause cancer. They suggested possible preventative and chemotherapy uses for benzofuran.
The same study also found the synthetic resin fights staph bacteria and salmonella by inhibiting growth. The dracaena plant is native to Africa but commonly grown in Asia and Central America. Resin from the plant is used in traditional Asian medicine to prevent cancer.