Exposure to benzene -- whether airborne or through ingesting food -- has a number of known negative health effects.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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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