Benzene is a chemical compound that can be found in oil, gasoline, cigarette smoke, and vehicle emissions. It is also widely used in the manufacturing of certain plastic and rubber products. Exposure to benzene is known to cause cancer and other short-term and long-term health problems. People can be exposed to benzene at the workplace, in the home, by drinking contaminated water or beverages, or just by breathing the air outside.
In recent years, a number of lawsuits have been filed by plaintiffs who allege that benzene exposure has caused serious health problems, even some deaths. This article discusses how people can be exposed to benzene, the known health risks associated with benzene, and the types of lawsuits that form the bulk of benzene litigation. (To learn about lawsuits arising from other dangerous chemicals or drugs, see Nolo's article Toxic Torts Overview.)
Benzene and Where It Is Found
Benzene is a colorless liquid chemical with a sweet smell. It is found in oil, gasoline, tobacco smoke, motor vehicle emissions, and the burning of coal. It is used in certain industries and also may be found in the air, water supply, and the home. Although most benzene exposure is at low levels not proven to cause health problems, some industrial workers or people living near sites where high levels of benzene can be found may be exposed to unsafe levels of the chemical.
Benzene is used to manufacture plastics, resins, nylon, synthetic fibers, detergents, pesticides, lubricants, dyes, and other chemicals. Industries that commonly use benzene include plastics and rubber manufacturing industries, oil refineries, chemical plants, shoe manufacturers, and gasoline related industries. Workers who might be exposed to benzene include: steel workers, printers, rubber workers, shoe makers, laboratory technicians, plastic industry workers, and gasoline service station workers.
Outdoor air may contain low levels of benzene from tobacco smoke, wood smoke, the transfer of gasoline, exhaust from motor vehicles, and industrial emissions. Air around hazardous waste sites or gas stations may also contain higher levels of benzene.
Indoor Air and Tobacco Smoke
Benzene vapor levels can be higher indoors, coming from products that contain benzene -- such as glues, paints, furniture wax, and detergents. However, nowadays many of these products have been modified to eliminate or reduce benzene content. About 50% of benzene exposure in the United States comes from tobacco smoke, according to a 2007 report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), an agency of the federal department of Health and Human Services.
Leaks from underground storage tanks or hazardous waste site tanks can contaminate water supplies and wells. For example, in 2005 an explosion in a Chinese petroleum plant caused 100,000 tons of benzene to spill into the Songhua River in China, contaminating the water supply of millions of people.
In the mid-2000's, consumer groups and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found unsafe levels of benzene in certain soft drinks and beverages.
Government Standards for Benzene Exposure Levels
Because of the known health risks associated with benzene exposure, federal government agencies have set standards for acceptable levels of benzene in drinking water and in the workplace. These agencies also require the reporting of any industrial spills or leaks involving benzene.
- Drinking water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), drinking water cannot have more than .005 milligrams of benzene per liter of water.
- Industrial spills. The EPA requires industries to report benzene leaks or spills of 10 pounds or more.
- Workplace air. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) regulates the amount of permissible benzene in the air at the workplace for both 8-hour days and the 40-hour workweek. OSHA also sets standards for short-term exposure to airborne benzene. Employers that use benzene in the workplace must monitor levels of benzene exposure by periodically testing employees' blood or breath. Both tests are accurate only if administered shortly after possible exposure.
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