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Benzene Exposure: Internal Documents Show What Petrochemical Industry Knew

As far back as 1948, many experts have known of the dangers and health risks of exposure to benzene. In a report linking benzene to leukemia, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health noted "that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero." The report was prepared for the American Petroleum Institute, the petrochemical industry's main lobbyist. The document shows that oil executives have known or should have known about the dangers of benzene exposure for over 60 years; yet, to this day, the industry claims that exposure only causes extremely rare forms of cancer and only at very high exposure levels.

Uncovering Internal Documents

As lawsuits involving benzene exposure have gained momentum over the past decades, plaintiff's lawyers across the country have uncovered thousands of internal memorandums, emails, letters, and meeting minutes that tell a story of an industry ignoring and covering up key scientific data regarding the true dangers of benzene exposure. Many of the documents had even been flagged by attorneys for big oil companies as documents that could be damaging in future lawsuits and should not be disclosed to the public.

Those documents will soon be made public for workers, journalists, academic researches, and others to review. Over 20,000 pages of benzene documents obtained mostly through toxic tort lawsuits will be published in a searchable online archive by the Center for Public Integrity, Columbia University, and the City University of New York. The Center for Public Integrity also plans to release hundreds of thousands of similar documents obtained in discovery regarding other dangerous toxins such as lead, asbestos, silica, and PCBs. These documents may very well blow the lid open on a decades old conspiracy to conceal the true danger of toxic exposure to industrial workers.

The documents reveal a number of different tactics employed by the petrochemical industry to create doubt about the effects of benzene exposure. Among the most widely used tactics was funding its own research to release studies using faulty science to show no adverse effects of benzene exposure. In fact, experts believe the industry funded more research than any other industry than the tobacco industry to create doubt about the link between benzene and various forms of cancer. The documents show that the industry spent roughly $36 million funding research.

Oil and chemical companies have been notorious for hiring consultants to publish articles in peer-reviewed journals that would downplay the effects of benzene exposure. These articles were often used to advance the industry's position in the regulatory arena and defend oil companies from lawsuits brought by workers who claim to have fallen ill due to unsafe levels of benzene exposure. In fact, a former OSHA official cited benzene as "a good example of how the general scientific literature is being polluted by people working for the industry."

New Benzene Studies

In 1987, after research about the dangers of benzene exposure continued to mount, federal regulators set the permissible exposure limit (PEL) at one part per million. Since that time, benzene emissions have dropped drastically in the United States. Even with the reduced PEL, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 5 million Americans continue to be at risk of developing cancer from benzene and other toxins that are polluted into the air by the nation's oil refineries. In response, California officials lowered its state's long term benzene exposure limits from 20 parts per 1 billion to just 1 part per billion.

In 1997, the National Cancer Institute released an important study that further linked benzene to various types of cancer. In the study, the NCI reported two key findings. First, the study showed that workers who were exposed to high levels of benzene had an increased risk of developing MDS and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Second, the effects could be triggered by exposure limits as low as the current OSHA PEL. In 2004, the NCI released a second study showing that Chinese workers who were exposed to benzene at levels below the OSHA limit had fewer white blood cells than workers who were not exposed. This suggested that there may not be any safe level of benzene exposure.

Benzene Lawyers

The release of the internal documents has the potential to show that the petrochemical industry was aware of the risks of benzene exposure and did not properly protect its employees. If you believe you have developed cancer as a result of benzene exposure, you may be eligible for compensation Contact our toxic exposure lawyers today to learn how we can help.


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