Benzene is widely used in a number of industries and products, yet many people remain unaware of the toxic danger of this chemical substance.
Benzene exposure, whether through inhalation or skin absorption, can cause life-threatening diseases including Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), lymphomas and aplastic Anemia. Some of these diseases do not manifest themselves until several years after exposure to benzene. Also, many people who are diagnosed with AML or MDS may not realize there can be a connection to past toxic exposure, particularly to benzene. If a person has been diagnosed with one of these cancers or another severe injury, and has a past history of chronic benzene exposure, they may have a claim.
What is Benzene?
Benzene is a chemical that is formed in some natural processes, such as forest fires and volcanic eruptions, but it is also a byproduct and ingredient in a multitude of human activities, and quite often in concentrations that lead to toxic exposures for workers and sometimes even entire communities.
In its pure form, benzene is a colorless or pale-yellow liquid that is highly flammable and evaporates into the air very quickly. Benzene fumes and vapor are denser and heavier than oxygen, so airborne concentrations of the chemical may settle into low-lying areas.
Highly Toxic to Humans
Benzene is a known human carcinogen. Exposure to the chemical, either by inhalation or skin absorption, can trigger potentially deadly health problems. According to the World Health Organization’s cancer research unit, most chronic benzene exposures occur through inhalation.
Long-term exposure to benzene, even in trace amounts, adversely affects the human body in a number of ways. Once in the bloodstream, the chemical causes chromosome changes in bone marrow cells, which in turn impairs the body’s ability to produce healthy levels of white blood cells, red blood cells, and blood platelets, leading to anemia.
Long-term benzene exposure causes Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) and several subtypes of the blood cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, benzene exposure has also been linked to childhood leukemia (particularly AML), acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), and other blood-related cancers such as multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Short-term exposures to benzene at high levels can also have toxic effects on human health. People who inhale high levels of benzene typically experience drowsiness, dizziness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, headaches, tremors, confusion, dizziness, and other signs of narcosis. At extremely high levels, benzene exposure may can cause unconsciousness and death.
Benzene exposure during pregnancy is also known to cause low birth weight, an increased risk of childhood leukemia, and a greater incidence of birth defects such as spina bifida.
Industrial Benzene Exposures
While the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research unit of the World Health Organization, warns that no level of benzene exposure is safe for humans, it sets guidelines for the short- and long-term benzene exposure limits for workers.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets the maximum time-weighted average benzene exposure limit at 1 part of benzene vapor per million parts of air (1 ppm) for an 8-hour workday and the maximum short-term exposure limit at 5 ppm for any 15-minute period.
Workers employed in industries that make or use benzene may be exposed to the highest levels of the chemical. These industries include petrochemicals production, oil and gas refining, coke and coal chemical manufacturing, rubber tire manufacturing, and storage or transport of benzene and petroleum products containing benzene.
Other workers who may be exposed to benzene because of their occupations include steel workers, printers, rubber workers, shoe makers, laboratory technicians, firefighters, auto mechanics, and gas station employees, to name a few.
Domestic Benzene Exposures
Benzene is an ingredient in many products typically used in households, and individuals using products containing benzene should take precautions to protect themselves from inhaling benzene fumes, getting benzene products on their skin, or accidentally swallowing benzene or splashing it into the eyes.
Domestic products that often contain substantial amounts of benzene are paint, lacquer, and varnish removers and thinners; industrial solvents; gasoline and other fuels; glue; paint; furniture wax; carpet-cleaning and dry-cleaning chemicals; detergents; ink; rubber; degreasers and other cleaning products.
Carpet cleaning and dry cleaning often use chemical detergents containing high levels of benzene.
Environmental Benzene Exposures
Petrochemical plants, oil and gas refineries, coal burning operations, and motor vehicle exhaust are all major sources of benzene pollution in the environment.
Recently, environmental scientists used advanced techniques to measure the levels of benzene and other toxic emissions in communities situated near the refineries and chemical plants on the north side of the Houston Ship Channel.
Researchers with the Houston Advanced Research Center used light beams and mirrors to construct three-dimensional maps of the air pollution in communities such as Galena Park, a mostly low-income Hispanic Houston-area neighborhood. The scientists “detected plumes of benzene and other substances associated with the petrochemical industry drifting from the nearby refineries, the rail yard and the barges on the Houston Ship Channel” and into the nearby communities, where residents breathed in the emissions.
Researchers also found the benzene was escaping from pipelines, historically an overlooked source of benzene emissions. These leaks create concentrations of the chemical “close to dangerous for short-term exposure, and at levels well over the safety limits for long-term exposure,” researchers found.
But Houston’s Ship Channel is just one area where environmental concentrations of benzene and other pollutants are making communities sick. Last year, the University of Montreal published troubling new research revealing that 29 pregnant women living near natural-gas hydraulic fracturing (fracking) sites in Canada had a median concentration of a benzene biomarker in their urine that was 3.5 times higher than the levels found in women from the general Canadian population.
Fracking wells dominate the landscape in many parts of the U.S. The wells sprang up before adequate research was done on the risk fracking poses to public health and safety. In addition to groundwater contamination and a wild upswing in the frequency of seismic activity in heavily fracked areas, research now shows that fracking releases benzene and other toxic gases from the rock and into the air.
Epidemiological studies led by Pennsylvania’s Geisinger clinic and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health of more than 400,000 patients found a significant association between fracking and increases in mild, moderate, and severe cases of asthma, a 40 percent increased chance of having a premature baby, and a 30 percent increased chance of having a pregnancy classified as high risk.
It’s still too early to tell whether residents living near fracking wells and other industrial activities associated with high benzene releases will develop rates of leukemia and other more serious health problems over the long term.
Due to certain statute of limitations for bringing a claim of this nature it is important to contact an attorney as soon as possible if you believe your condition is a result of benzene exposure. If you or a loved one was exposed to benzene and was diagnosed with one of the forms of leukemia or lymphoma listed above, please contact a Beasley Allen benzene attorney for a complimentary, no-cost consultation to learn your legal rights.