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Mineral Spirits, Where Benzene Hides in Plain Sight

Published on July 28th, 2021 by Andrew Hughes

Trade Secrets Hurt Consumers

Under the current guidelines, products that contain more than .1% benzene must list benzene as a component on the label and the accompanying Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). To get around this requirement, many products – such as varnishes, paint thinners, carburetor cleaners, and brake cleaners – will only include “mineral spirits” or “naphtha” on its list of components.

Mineral spirits and naphtha include a very broad range of petroleum distillates. Manufacturers frequently list that their product includes a vague quantity of the “naphtha” or “mineral spirit” by a percentage range, such as 20-50%. The manufacturers claim that the exact percentage is a trade secret. Unfortunately, mineral spirits have typically contained at least .1% benzene and commonly more than 1% benzene since the 1970s. In fact, because the process of creating mineral spirits has been mostly unchanged since the late 1970s, these benzene contents are still high. Accordingly, it can make a huge difference if the base of a solvent or paint thinner is 20% vs. 50% mineral spirits when 1% of the mineral spirit is benzene.

Types of Mineral Spirits

The three categories of mineral spirits are classified based on their aromatic content. Regular mineral spirits are 14-22% aromatics; Rule 66 mineral spirits are 2-8% aromatic, and low aromatic mineral spirits are less than 2% aromatic. Why is this important? Because aromatics contain benzene and so the higher the aromatic content, the higher the benzene level. As recently as 1998, Rule 66 mineral spirits contained between 100 and 900 ppm of benzene, a level where breathing protection should be used.

Mineral spirits were partly created to supplant turpentine as a thinner. Users complained about the smell of turpentine and mineral spirits did not have that same harsh smell. It is ironic that mineral spirits might be a safer product if it also had a harsh smell. Maybe then, users would think to protect themselves from the fumes.

The Benzene in Mineral Spirits Causes Leukemia

Cost Over Safety

Benzene does not add functionality to solvents, making its presence in those products of no value to the manufacturers or the end users. Exxon developed and patented a process for the production of low aromatic (i.e. low benzene) mineral spirits in 1977. However, the product required enhanced refinement at a higher cost to the manufacturer. So while it is possible to make paint thinners and brake cleaners safer, the producers of these products too often hide behind their “trade secrets” and refuse to cop to the true benzene content in their product. This failure on the manufacturers’ part helps line their pockets in the short term, but it also sickens mechanics, pressmen, and painters who rely upon their benzene-containing products.

The Benzene in Mineral Spirits Causes Leukemia

Benzene is a clear, aromatic, carcinogenic chemical that is a naturally occurring component of crude oil. Benzene is known to cause acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), and studies also link it with other blood and bone cancers including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) and multiple myeloma (MM).

We Stand With You

Consumers deserve to know how much benzene contaminates the products they use at work and around the house. Hughes Law Offices works to bring this information to light. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with leukemia and has regularly worked with products like mineral spirits, call 1-800-BENZENE and speak to a lawyer today.

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