John Thompson didn’t dream that dipping his gloves and tools in the chemical benzene could cause harm. He spent much of his life building infrastructure for rubber plants and chemical facilities in Texas, and noticed 5-gallon drums of benzene stored at job sites. He used the liquid as a cleaning solvent, dipping hammers and cutters into buckets of the chemical, and even soaking his gloves and boots in it. He trusted his employers who said the chemical was safe.

But his exposure to benzene took a toll on his life. In 2006, he was diagnosed with a rare form leukemia, and died in 2009. In the end, he began to believe that his regular exposure to benzene had caused his deadly illness, and that the companies were aware of the hazards it posed to workers. Yet, they never warned those on the factory floor, many of whom worked hard for decades in blue-collar jobs to support families.

Thompson’s family sued the benzene suppliers but Thompson died before the lawsuit could play out. In the years since, hundreds of similar lawsuits have been filed by sick and dying workers and their loved ones seeking justice.

Benzene is a colorless, flammable liquid often identified by its sweet odor. It is formed natural from volcanoes and forest fires, but most exposure is through human activities, especially in workplace. Benzene is one of the 20 most widely used chemicals in the U.S., used mainly as an agent in the manufacturing of other chemicals, such as plastics, lubricants, rubbers, dyes, solvents, and as a gasoline additive. These uses have been greatly reduced since the chemical has been identified as a carcinogen. But people who work in these industries remain at an increased risk of developing certain cancers, especially those that affect the blood cells, like leukemia. Studies in both people and laboratory animals have confirmed this link.

Research has found that workers exposed to high levels of benzene in the workplace were more likely to be diagnosed with leukemia, particularly acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Some studies linked benzene exposure to childhood leukemia, especially AML, as well as acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), and other blood-type cancers including multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma in adults.

The evidence is damning enough for several expert agencies to classify benzene as a cancer-causing agent, including the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO); the National Toxicology Program (NTP), a part of several U.S. government agencies including the National Institutes of Health (NIH); the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

More than five million U.S. workers continue to be exposed to benzene at levels that may be hazardous to their health. For many, it’s too late. But justice can be served. If you or a loved one has worked in any type of industry working in or around chemicals and been diagnosed with any type of cancer that may have been caused by exposure to benzene, consider talking with an attorney to find out your rights.

Public Integrity
American Cancer Society

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