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What Is Benzene?

Published on April 27th, 2020 by Andrew Hughes

Benzene is a naturally occurring component of crude oil. When distilled, it is a clear, organic liquid with a sweet, aromatic smell. Benzene is highly flammable and is used primarily to make other chemicals, plastics, dyes, lubricants and pesticides. Benzene is often present as a constituent or contaminant in numerous solvents or degreasers, such as toluene and mineral spirits. Since benzene is found in crude oil, it is often also found in other derivatives of crude oil, such as oil-based paints, thinners, glues, rubber, and gasoline.

Benzene Is Not A New Hazard

Medical experts began warning about the connection between benzene and leukemia nearly 100 years ago. Workers in certain industries were known to be more prone to develop blood diseases in the 1930s. Benzene’s carcinogenic properties have been widely publicized for decades. While companies began to reduce the amount of benzene in many products, they failed to properly warn the users of those products about the hazards of benzene. 

What Benzene Does to the Body

Benzene exposures are associated with certain types of cancer, including acute myeloid leukemia (AML) myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), multiple myeloma (MM), aplastic anemia, acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), to name a few. This is because benzene interferes with the normal function of blood cells. In fact, benzene can affect your genes in such a way that tests may be able to show genetic damage attributable to benzene exposures. Chronic exposures to benzene interferes with more and more blood cells, and can eventually lead to the development of blood and bone cancers. 

Government Regulations and Industry Pushback

In 1946 the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) first recommended a limit for workplace benzene exposures. There was pushback from industry to set any level and so the recommendation was 100 parts per million (PPM). This was despite the fact that then-current studies showed instances of benzene poisoning at levels between 10 and 25 ppm. Only one year later, in 1947, the ACGIH lowered its recommendation to 50 ppm. After only one additional year the number was lowered to 35 ppm.  Also in 1948 the American Petroleum Institute (API) conceded that the only absolutely safe level of benzene exposure is zero, and yet, it still fought for 50 ppm. In 1957 the ACGIH lowered the recommended level to 25 ppm.

By the late 1970’s, the permissible limit for benzene had been lowered to 10 ppm. In 1977, the US Department of Labor and Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) proposed regulations that would lower the permissible limit to 1 ppm. However, the API challenged this level in the courts, arguing that OSHA overstepped the authority granted to it. Oddly enough, the API argued that the new 1 ppm standard was improper because OSHA could not show that 1 ppm was any safer than 10 ppm. The API argued the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court and won, mainly based on procedural and statutory issues and not on safety grounds. Finally, in 1987 the level of permissible benzene exposure was lowered to today’s standard, 1 ppm.

Workers Who Are Often Exposed To Benzene

Benzene can be found in various industries and work environments where people are working directly with solvents, fuels and other chemicals. These industries and trades include mechanics, refinery workers, petroleum extraction workers, ship or barge workers, printers, painters, rubber workers, tire builders, and gasoline distribution workers. 

For many workers suffering from acute myeloid leukemia (AML), myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), multiple myeloma (MM), and aplastic anemia, their disease is related to benzene exposure on the job. 

How Exposures Occur

Workers who were exposed every day to the benzene contained in fuels, solvents and other products are at the greatest risk for developing benzene-related illnesses.

Benzene can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin or ingested. Inhalation is the most common means of exposure because benzene vapors easily invade the breathing space of those using products containing benzene. If you recall smelling a sweet, aeromatic, gasoline-like aroma, it may have been benzene. Unfortunately, if you can smell benzene (the “odor threshold”), you are inhaling unsafe levels. Acute benzene exposures can cause short-term problems such as dizziness or drowsiness. 

Dermal exposures occur when benzene-containing products come in contact with the skin. Many workers have used solvents containing benzene to clean parts, tools, and machinery. Years ago, it was also common for workers to use benzene-containing solvents or fuels to wash their hands. Unfortunately, since benzene can be absorbed through the skin, individuals washing their hands with it suffered significant exposures.

Benzene Exposures and Onset of Leukemia

Workers exposed to benzene do not develop leukemia overnight. There is often a significant “latency period” between the actual exposures and the onset of symptoms. In some cases, a diagnosis may come 15 or 20 years after the benzene exposures. On the other hand, the Centers for Disease Control reports that the minimum latency period for a first responder’s exposure to benzene at the World Trade Center site and a diagnosis of Acute Myeloid Leukemia is 1.5 years. One researcher found that the disease latency for benzene exposures is similar to those with atomic bomb irradiation. The latency between benzene exposures and diagnosis is a frequent point of contention amongst the medical experts in benzene trials.

Name Brand Products

If you read today’s warnings on a can of Liquid Wrench or Parks Lacquer Thinner, it may not state that it contains any benzene. But you need to bear in mind that the benzene levels in many name brand products like Safety-Kleen or Gumout Carb Cleaner have changed over the years. Our lawyers will identify both the product and the vintage of that product in determining your benzene exposures.

If you believe that your illness or that of a loved one was caused by benzene exposures, call Benzene Lawyers today at 1-800-BENZENE and speak with one of our benzene lawyers.

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