Exposure to benzene -- whether airborne or through ingesting food -- has a number of known negative health effects.
Effects of Long-Term Exposure to Airborne Benzene
When people breathe benzene over long periods of time -- for example, because of exposure to high levels of benzene on the job -- they can suffer from serious health problems.
- Cancer. The United States Department of Health and Human Services classifies benzene as a human carcinogen (an agent causing cancer). Long-term exposure to airborne benzene is known to cause leukemia, particularly acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and acute non-lymphocytic leukemia (ANLL).
- Anemia. A report by the ATSDR also links benzene to a life-threatening form of anemia, called aplastic anemia.
- Reproductive problems. Long-term exposure to benzene has been linked to female infertility, disruption of the menstrual cycle, and decreased ovary size.
- Immune system damage. Constant exposure to benzene can damage the body's immune system.
Effects of Short-Term Exposure to Airborne Benzene
Short-term exposure to high levels of benzene can cause death. Short-term exposure to low levels of benzene can cause dizziness, drowsiness, irregular or rapid heartbeat, unconsciousness, confusion, tremors, and headaches.
Health Effects Caused by Ingesting Benzene
Ingesting foods with high levels of benzene can cause stomach aches, dizziness, vomiting, drowsiness, convulsions, and irregular or rapid heartbeat.
In the mid-1990's the number of lawsuits involving benzene surged. The bulk of these lawsuits fall into three types: cases alleging occupational exposure to benzene, claims based on benzene leaks, and suits filed over the presence of benzene in soft drinks.
Benzene litigation first emerged with lawsuits involving occupational exposure to benzene. In these lawsuits, a worker (or a group of workers) typically alleges that long-term exposure to benzene on the job has caused a sickness like leukemia or anemia. Typical claims in these cases include:
- Product liability claims. In these claims, plaintiffs allege that a product containing benzene is dangerous or that the manufacturer failed to provide adequate warnings or instructions regarding the proper use of the injury-causing product. Defendants in these cases include the manufacturer and distributor of the product. For example, workers in a plastics factory might claim that a chemical they use to make plastics emits benzene into the air, and that their exposure to this chemical over long periods of time caused them to contract leukemia. In response to these types of claims, some defendants have argued that the workers knew the products contained benzene and therefore they "assumed the risk" of developing health problems associated with benzene. (To learn more about product liability claims, see Nolo's Product Liability FAQ.)
- Claims against the employer for unsafe working conditions. Plaintiffs in occupational exposure cases may also allege that their employer failed to keep them safe by requiring them to work around dangerous chemicals or products, or by neglecting to provide safety equipment like ventilation systems.
- Claims against the employer and equipment manufacturers for failed protective equipment. Some occupational exposure lawsuits might also allege that equipment used to eliminate or reduce workers' exposure to benzene failed to work properly. Plaintiffs in these cases might sue both their employer and the manufacturer of the equipment.
Exposure from Benzene Leaks
In recent years, an increasing number of legal claims have been brought on behalf of people who have been exposed to benzene through leaks or spills of benzene-containing products. For example, a leak in Pennsylvania underground gasoline storage tanks caused an underground plume of 50,000 gallons of gasoline to spread to 350 local homes. Residents of those homes alleged that the airborne benzene caused health problems, prompting over 200 individual lawsuits seeking compensation for injuries.
Benzene Exposure From Soft Drinks
Other benzene lawsuits have been brought against beverage manufacturers, over the presence of certain ingredients in soft drinks. Specifically, these lawsuits allege that under certain light and heat conditions, benzoate salts (such as sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate) in the drinks can combine with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) to form benzene at levels that are unsafe under consumer product safety guidelines. As a result of these lawsuits, several of the defendant soft drink manufacturers (including PepsiCo and Coca-Cola) have reformulated the ingredients used in some of their drinks.
Between 2005 and 2007, the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) tested 200 soft drinks and other beverages for benzene. The study found that ten types of drinks contained more than the permissible amount of benzene (5 parts per billion). Since the study, the makers of those ten beverages have either taken the drinks off the market or reformulated them so that they now contain permissible levels of benzene. The FDA is continuing to test beverages for benzene levels.
Legal claims involving benzene exposure are usually not the kind in which you can represent yourself effectively. The legal and scientific issues in such cases are often complex and sophisticated. Depending on your case, you may wish to retain the services of a lawyer who specializes in products liability, workplace toxins, or other types of benzene litigation.
You may also want to consult with a lawyer to find out if there is an existing class action lawsuit regarding the benzene exposure that concerns you, and if so, whether it is advisable for you to join that class action. (If there is an existing class action, consider contacting the lawyers for the class directly; they will likely be very interested in talking with you.) Such initial consultations are usually free of charge.
For help in choosing a good personal injury attorney, read Nolo's article Finding a Personal Injury Lawyer. Go to Nolo's Lawyer Directory for a list of personal injury attorneys in your geographical area (click on the "Types of Cases" and "Work History" tabs to find out about the lawyer's experience, if any, with benzene cases).
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