Refinery workers, railroad workers, gas station employees, and mechanics may suffer an increased risk for blood cancer because of their exposure to benzene.
Benzene is a volatile organic compound that is naturally present in crude oil. It is commonly used to make gasoline, plastics, rubber, dyes, pesticides, and more.
Agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have warned that benzene is a carcinogen. But it is still legal in the U.S. and surprisingly hard to avoid. Common pollutants like car exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke contain traces of benzene.
Workers who directly handle benzene may suffer an increased risk for developing blood cancers. These include refinery workers, mechanics, railroad workers, and others who regularly handle benzene products like oil and gasoline.
Some workers have filed lawsuits against benzene manufacturers alleging that the toxic substance combined with unsafe work conditions caused them to develop cancer.
There is No “Safe” Level of Benzene Exposure
The EPA has declared that benzene is a “known human carcinogen.” The International Agency of Research on Cancer, a research arm of the World Health Organization, similarly defines it as “carcinogenic to humans.”
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) considers products that contain more than 5% of their weight in benzene to be hazardous. The EPA similarly dictates maximum benzene percentages in gasoline and water. It wasn't until 2015 though when they finally required refineries to monitor and report benzene emissions.
Employers are also required to follow OSHA safety standards when workers are exposed to benzene. Workers cannot be exposed to more than one part of benzene per million parts of air (1 ppm) for an 8-hour workday, or 5 ppm of benzene for a 15-minute interval. If workers are handling benzene in higher concentrations, their employers are required to provide them with appropriate protective gear.
But, despite these measures, research suggests that there is no safe level of exposure to benzene.
In 1997, an National Cancer Institute (NCI) study showed that benzene exposure, even within OSHA’s legal limit, could cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma and myelodysplastic syndrome, a common precursor to leukemia. In 2004, the NCI conducted another study which found that shoemakers in China who were exposed to benzene at concentration levels lower than OSHA limits had fewer white blood cells. Based on these results, the NCI concluded that there is no safe level of benzene exposure.
Benzene Exposure May Increase Risk for Blood Cancers
According to the American Cancer Society, exposure to benzene primarily affects bone marrow where new blood cells are made. Not surprisingly, the chemical is associated with an increased risk of blood cancers.
Benzene is primarily linked to adult leukemia, especially acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The American Cancer Society also notes that benzene exposure may increase the risk for other blood cancers like childhood leukemia, multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, though these are less common.
Who is at Risk?
The EPA estimates that 5 million Americans could have an increased risk of cancer because of benzene exposure. This estimate is conservative though, as it doesn't account for workplace exposure which poses an even greater health risk.
Workers who regularly work with oil, gasoline, and other benzene-containing products may be susceptible to cancer, including:
- Steel workers
- Refinery workers
- Chemical plant workers
- Lab technicians
- Gas station employees
Other Benzene Side Effects
If benzene is inhaled or swallowed at a high concentrations, it can cause a host of immediate short-term side effects, including:
- Rapid heart rate
In the long term, benzene primarily affects bone marrow—even if inhaled or consumed at low concentrations. Besides causing cancer, damaged bone marrow can result in anemia, low white blood cell counts (which makes it harder to fight off infections), and low blood platelet counts (which can cause excessive bleeding or bruising).
ExxonMobil Faces Lawsuits for Leaking 31,000 Pounds of Benzene
An EPA investigation later noted “pervasive evidence of pipe corrosion,” and leaks crudely covered up with duct tape and plastic bags.
Benzene doesn’t only pose a threat to workers who come in direct contact with it. Manufacturers may also endanger those who live near oil refineries and chemical plants.
Refinery and chemical plant emissions, leaks, and spills are a common source of air and water pollution, especially in surrounding towns where unnatural, toxic smells are too common. It's a particular problem in what's been named "cancer alley": the stretch from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that contains 150 chemical plants and refineries. Louisiana suffers one of the highest cancer rates in the country—a fact which watchdog groups like the Louisiana Bucket Brigade argue is no coincidence.
ExxonMobil's Standard Heights, Louisiana refinery is one of the largest in the country. On June 14, 2012 the refinery suffered a leak which released naptha into the air. Naptha is a hydrocarbon mixture that contains a high concentration of benzene.
Nearby residents complained of a strong gasoline smell that lingered for days. Dozens of Standard Heights residents fell ill, reporting side effects like vomiting, burning eyes, breathing problems, and tremors.
Despite the severity of the leak, ExxonMobil initially failed to report the incident to the EPA. When they finally acknowledged the incident, they estimated that 10,000 pounds of naptha and benzene were released into the air. After pressure from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a watchdog group, they changed that number to a more realistic 31,000 pounds.
An EPA investigation later noted “pervasive evidence of pipe corrosion,” including leaking valves. Some leaks were crudely covered up with duct tape and plastic bags.
ExxonMobil would later pay $2.329 million to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality for pollution violations they committed between 2008 and 2013. The settlement agreement also required the company to implement better spill-detection procedures for their benzene tanks.
Seventeen Standard Heights’ residents have filed a class action lawsuit against the company. They allege that ExxonMobil is guilty of gross negligence, fraud and conspiracy.
Hold Benzene Manufacturers Accountable
The National Cancer Institute has said that there is no safe level of benzene exposure. If you or a loved one were exposed to benzene and later developed a blood cancer like leukemia or non-Hodgkin lymphoma, you may be entitled to compensation.
Our attorneys work every day to hold corporations accountable for harming American workers and consumers. Contact us today to find out if you are eligible for a lawsuit.