Chemical of the Month – Benzene
Posted 3:24 p.m. on Saturday, September 24, 2022
The area known as Cancer Alley was once home to thriving rural black communities, with fertile land fed by the Mississippi River. But petrochemical development that began in the 1960s poisoned the air, water and life in the region. The trees have fallen; withered crops; the flowers died. Few households today are spared from cancer, asthma or premature births.
But today, the water in these communities is undrinkable, the air is choked with foul odors and the soil no longer produces healthy crops. One chemical that may have contributed to this great death is benzene. Benzene prevents plants from completing the process of photosynthesis. It stifles plant respiration by replacing the carbon dioxide that plants breathe. And animal studies show low birth weight and bone marrow damage in infants exposed to airborne benzene during pregnancy.
While new laws and technologies have prevented many benzene-related deaths, some workers and residents of industrialized neighborhoods are routinely exposed to dangerous levels of benzene. Louisiana has the highest rate (by land area) of industrial benzene emissions in the United States. These emissions (also called air pollution) are highest overall in Calcasieu Parish, followed by “Cancer Alley” parishes, including St. James and St. John the Baptist. Although benzene is less potent than some other carcinogenic chemicals like ethylene oxide, it is much more common. The result is that benzene and ethylene oxide contribute a significant portion of pollution-related cancer risk for most people in southeast Louisiana.
The EPA recognizes benzene as a human carcinogen, and the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry (ATSDR) establishes the acute hazard level, or the level at which short-term exposure to benzene may have adverse effects. health effects, at 29 micrograms per cubic meter of air. But during the two-week period from August 24 to September 7, 2021, the concentration of benzene at Valero’s New Orleans refinery in Norco was 10 times higher than the ATSDR’s harmful level. Even though the EPA requires refineries to conduct fence monitoring for benzene, refineries and other petrochemical facilities routinely violate safety levels. These facilities are not required to release their air monitoring data to the public. If industry and LDEQ aren’t helping us protect ourselves from dangerous air pollution, or even letting us know what’s already in the air, then we need air monitoring powered by the community to fill this gap.
In humans, long-term exposure, even if below the “safe level” of benzene – such as working in a factory that emits it, or living or going to school nearby – is linked to leukemia. Benzene is metabolized in the liver, lungs and bone marrow; exposure, even during a single release event, can cause liver damage that later poses a cancer risk. Short-term exposure to benzene can cause headaches, dizziness, and eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritation, as well as damage to the immune and blood systems. Long-term exposure can cause blood disorders and increase the risk of leukemia. Benzene is also found in cigarette smoke and gasoline car emissions.
Benzene is already a danger to communities in Louisiana. In 1997, a barge spilled up to 400,000 gallons of benzene into the Mississippi River, requiring the evacuation of the entire Southern University campus. Exxon Mobile’s three factories in Baton Rouge have been a frequent source of rogue benzene emissions, including a fire in 2020, a settlement in 2017 that addressed years of dangerous discharge and a leak of more than 31,000 pounds in 2012 which caused extensive damage to factory workers and members of the gated community. . Since exposure to benzene can cause damage years later, the effects of these releases are not short-term. Many cities and parishes currently lack the infrastructure to properly warn and evacuate residents of existing hazards. Therefore, adding more dangerous benzene production adds fire to an already boiling pot. We already have a benzene problem in Louisiana, and there’s no need for more.
Last week, a Louisiana judge revoked Formosa Plastics’ air permit, in part because of health risks from its emissions of benzene and other carcinogens. The move was celebrated by residents and community advocates in St. James Parish, where the massive petrochemical plant is believed to have been built. The permit would have allowed Formosa Plastics to emit more than 35 tons of benzene per year, making it one of the largest emitters of benzene in Louisiana. Since any exposure to a cancer-causing chemical increases a person’s risk of cancer, we can say with 100% certainty that the judge’s decision reduced the risk of blood cancer for everyone who would have been exposed to the benzene emissions from Formosa Plastics.
We have all heard the argument that these chemical plants create jobs. No one deserves the false choice of a job in a chemical plant that poses a serious risk to their health. A worker exposed to 10 ppm benzene for 40 years – which is normal exposure for a factory worker – is 155 times more likely to die of leukemia than an unexposed worker. A benzene-exposed job at Formosa Plastics would not have been a long-term career, simply because its workers may not have long to live.
HOW TO REDUCE THE NEED FOR BENZENE
- Benzene is used to make chemical detergents. Switch to plant-based detergents, like Dr. Bronner’s or 7th Generation.
- Synthetic clothing dyes derived from benzene are extremely toxic, and workers in countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and India who handle them develop chemical burns, lung damage and cancer. When shopping for new clothes, look online for manufacturers that use naturally dyed fabrics.
- Many pesticides are derived from benzene, but USDA Organic Foods are produced without these pesticides. Ask your local farmers at the farmer’s market if they currently spray their food crops with pesticides, and what type. There are many small farms that are “unsprayed” even if they don’t meet all the onerous requirements to be certified organic.
Community Scientists Chemical of the Month is a service program of RISE St. James; Caitlion O. Hunter, Juris Doctor, Class of 2022, Past President, Loyola Environmental Law Society; Tim Schütz, PhD researcher, Anthropology University of California, Irvine; and the Community Scientist (TCS) research team.