Tradesmen and Cancer; the Benzene Effect

Benzene causes cancer; a fact supported by decades of in-depth, documented research.
Despite our understanding of it’s danger in the workplace, the following continues to be true:

  • Benzene is the number one cause of Leukemia, responsible for an estimated 10,000 deaths by exposure annually.
  • An estimated half-million workers are needlessly exposed to benzene annually, either through direct skin contact or toxic fumes.
  • Benzene is among the most widely produced chemicals in the U.S. (based on volume), ranked 17th.

What level of benzene exposure is considered dangerous?

According to many researchers outside of industry controls and influence, that would be any number above zero.
You’re a tradesman; a painter, a printer, a machinist, a laborer in the rail yards, a trucker for gasoline delivery, or a dock worker. Perhaps you work in a manufacturing plant for plastics, rubber, nylon, dyes, detergents, or an oil refinery. Or, maybe you spend your workday within a plant that produces the products used routinely by tradesmen.
American workers who produce solvents for degreasing, paint thinner or lacquers, resins, waxes, glues and adhesives, tires, petroleum products, and pesticides (to name a few), as well as those who come into contact with such products in the course of their daily work, are at high risk of exposure to the toxic chemical benzene.
Industries and trades that use or produce products containing benzene without extreme precautions place workers at high risk for Leukemia and other blood-related cancers. Studies have long shown the negative effects on cell counts from both low levels of exposure for periods of less than five years, to the single occurrence of a more profound exposure, such as a bio-hazardous spill or accident.
The lists of products that you may come into contact with on the job that contain benzene is extensive.  I urge tradesmen who handle solvents (especially petroleum-based), paint thinners and lacquers, dye and resins, and glues are to:

  • Check labels for the presence of benzene. Trade names include Benzol 90, Pyrobenzol, Polystream, Coal naphtha, and Phene, among others.
  • Check your company’s MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) information required to be available by your employer for known products in your environment that contain benzene.
  • Be pro-active; wear protective glasses with splash shields, solvent-resistant gloves, and where even low levels of toxic fumes are likely, properly fitted respirators.

Benzene is naturally found in crude oil, making the risk to those within the petroleum industry among some of the highest, as well as those who deliver or pump gasoline.
Workers exposed to the solvents used by others for cleaning and degreasing shop floors and/or equipment within an indoor environment are also at risk of inhaling dangerous vapors, despite casual proximity. Solvents should never be used when unprotected workers are present.
Clear, colorless and highly flammable, benzene has a sweet odor. Low exposures can cause irritation to the eyes, throat and respiratory system, while high levels of exposure are more likely to cause dizziness, convulsions, and sometimes, death due to its affect on the nervous system.
Benzene exposure is preventable, yet workers bear an unacceptable and potentially deadly health risk due to inadequate protective devices, ignorance to the dangers of exposure, and by the negligence of employers to enforce responsible guidelines.
Tradespersons who frequently use chemicals or solvents that contain benzene and other poisonous chemicals should wash their hands thoroughly and frequently throughout the day, and change clothes (if possible) before leaving work for home at the end of their shift.
Prolonged exposure due to absorption through clothing only heightens the risk. Clothing or skin exposed to liquid benzene can cause secondary vapor exposures to others, especially children who are far more sensitive at low levels due to their size and lung capacity; a process that’s called off-gassing.
Furthermore, a physician should be consulted immediately if you suspect a benzene exposure. Tests are available to detect benzene in both breath and blood, but must be performed soon after an exposure occurs, or is suspected. While the negative effects of an exposure to benzene may be immediate, the ability to detect the chemical in the body is short-lived.
As cancer-related deaths due to benzene exposure rise, workers and/or family representatives are becoming educated to the frequency of negligent exposure and are seeking legal avenues for compensation with success.  While no amount of compensation can cure Leukemia and other blood-based cancers, the financial stakes of ignoring worker safety laws have been raised to a costly new high for industry insiders who knowingly place workers in harm’s way.
Cliff Horwitz welcomes your comments on this article and can be reached at (800)-985-1819.