Benzene-induced erythropoietic depression has been proposed to be due to the production of toxic metabolites. Presently, the cytotoxicities of benzene metabolites, including phenol, catechol, hydroquinone, and 1,2,4-benzenetriol, to erythroid progenitor-like K562 cells were investigated. After exposure to these metabolites, K562 cells showed significant inhibition of viability and apoptotic characteristics. Each metabolite caused a significant increase in activities of caspase-3, -8, and -9, and pretreatment with caspase-3, -8, and -9 inhibitors significantly inhibited benzene metabolites-induced phosphatidylserine exposure. These metabolites also elevated expression of Fas and FasL on the cell surface. After exposure to benzene metabolites, K562 cells showed an increase in reactive oxygen species level, and pretreatment with N-acetyl-l-cysteine significantly protected against the cytotoxicity of each metabolite. Interestingly, the control K562 cells and the phenol-exposed cells aggregated together, but the cells exposed to other metabolites were scattered. Further analysis showed that hydroquione, catechol, and 1,2,4-benzenetriol induced a decrease in the cell surface sialic acid levels and an increase in the cell surface sialidase activity, but phenol did not cause any changes in sialic acid levels and sialidase activity. Consistently, an increase in expression level of sialidase Neu3 mRNA and a decrease in mRNA level of sialyltransferase ST3GAL3 gene were detected in hydroquione-, catechol-, or 1,2,4-benzenetriol-treated cells, but no change in mRNA levels of two genes were found in phenol-treated cells. In conclusion, these benzene metabolites could induce apoptosis of K562 cells mainly through caspase-8-dependent pathway and ROS production, and sialic acid metabolism might play a role in the apoptotic process. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Environ Toxicol 29: 1437–1451, 2014.