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Benzene is (considered to be) a dangerous carcinogenic volatile organic compound. If somebody (oh, say, I dunno, a petrochemical plant maybe?) were to release some Benzene into the air where you live - could you filter it out? Say, with some mask, or some filtration system for a room?

Googling, I've noticed that "activated carbon" may be useful for this purpose, in some contexts, but frankly I have no idea whether that makes sense or whether what works for water filters is relevant for air filtration.

PS - I'm not in Houston myself, but my home town also has a refinery which emits some Benzene.

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    I think this question belongs in Chemistry. – Carey Gregory Sep 7 '17 at 22:19
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is a chemistry question, not a health question. – Mark Sep 7 '17 at 23:09
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    Actually this is a very pertinent Environmental Health topic on which I wrote a term paper in my MPH. I vote to keep it - largely because I am going to answer it in a health-focused way. If you still feel it belongs in chemistry or would be good copied over there as well, pls migrate my answer too. – DoctorWhom Sep 8 '17 at 4:05
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    Belongs there, yes. Belongs here, also yes, IMHO. If environmental and occupational health is off topic, what about other public health realms? This is a textbook Env Health topic... What about pollution particulates and preventing asthma? Ozone depletion and preventing skin cancer? I still vote keep. – DoctorWhom Sep 8 '17 at 8:15
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    @CareyGregory: I don't care about the chemistry of it, I just want to know what to know how to keep healthy and not be poisoned by Benzene. – einpoklum Sep 8 '17 at 8:35
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VOCs are one of the most prevalent indoor air pollutants. They are released by many common materials, from foams to carpets to paints. House air circulation is not very conducive to adequate dispersion, and it is usually worse in the winter. There are known health effects from headaches to cancer. Effects experienced are usually limited to symptoms rather than more severe pathology, but it depends on air concentration and chemical.

There are filtration systems for VOCs. This is not an exhaustive list.

I have written a term paper on plant VOC filtration, and researched/spoken with an MD pulmonologist who is an Environmental Health professor, for my OWN home air quality questions. Sources below.

1. Activated charcoal and similar carbon filtration systems do filter VOCs.

The issue is air circulation; check the square footage of units. I myself purchased a Vornado (not product placement, just an example) and there are numerous others. (Note: the ones that use electric fields to sanitize air produce potentially harmful molecules. That's another topic.)

There are full-house HEPA filtration systems (HEPA filters can over-work your furnace) for particulates, but do note that putting a HEPA filter on a normal furnace can cause it to overwork and break. However for VOCs, I imagine there are installable carbon filters for even a normal house HVAC. If you check into that, please add a comment or answer and I'll include it!

Air filters with activated charcoal will remove benzene (and other volatile organic compounds) Source:

2. Individual respirators for chemicals do exist as well.

However it is not feasible to live in a gas mask...

3. Plants filter VOCs pretty well.

Some years ago there was a surge of large downtown office buildings across the world that installed numerous of the plants that have the highest filtration rate.

I am going to quote my paper; references below. It's a text wall, but it thoroughly answers your question.

Studies have shown that there are specific plants that are particularly excellent at removing VOCs from the air. Contrary to what one might expect, it is not the foliage nor flowers of the plants that are responsible for this filtration; it is the microorganisms unique to each plant that live on the root systems in the soil. They absorb the molecules and metabolism them for energy. (Wolverton, 1989).

Regarding specific plants, Chrysanthemum morifolium, the florist’s mum, in multiple studies stood out as the best at removing overall VOCs in the indoor environment. Other plants have more “specialized” performances. For removal of formaldehyde, Chmaedorea seifrizii (the bamboo palm) outperforms all other plants. For benzene, Hedera helix (English Ivy) does the best at low concentrations, and Gerbera jamesonii (the Gerbara daisy) performs best at high concentrations. The Gerbara daisy also outperforms all others at high concentrations of TCE, but Spathiphyllum sp. (the Peace Lily) is better than the daisy at lower TCE concentrations. The common houseplants golden pothos and snakeplant are both also well-studied as being adept at removing VOCs (Wolverton, 1989).

The number of houseplants that would be required in order to adequately filter an 1800 ft2 home is estimated at 15-18 of 6-8" diameter plants per person (Wolverton, 1997). Aeration of the soil is critical in order for airborne VOCs to reach these microbes. There have been several designs of aerated planters utilizing hydroculture with charcoal filtration that have aimed to take advantage of this army of chemical-cleansing microbes, such as the Plant Air Purifier designed by Wolverton himself, but studies on efficacy are currently sparse.

Sources:

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