Environmental issues are becoming forefront in many people’s minds, especially in regards to fighting against global warming or our reliance on fossil fuels. However, the very real fact is that people are being hurt by other environmental issues that people aren’t talking about as loudly or internationally.
Hearkening back to the questionable use of DDT on farms throughout the country in the mid-twentieth century, there are stories about the misuse of chemical agents and environmental hazards that go largely unaddressed by the companies that perpetrate them.
In particular, we will be looking at the dangers associated with benzene, a chemical solvent that has been used in the South’s petrochemical infrastructure for at least eighty years.
Benzene and its use
Benzene is an organic compound that can be found naturally and industrially processed. It’s a chemical that has been used in a huge variety of synthetic products, including plastics, dyes, adhesives, and pesticides.
It can be found in gasoline and cigarette smoke, as well, which are its main sources of dangerous human contact. People who are likely to come into contact with benzene include steelworkers, refinery workers, printers, shoemakers, laboratory technicians, firefighters, and gas station employees.
Dangers of Benzene
Benzene is a known carcinogen, and consuming it (directly or indirectly) can seriously increase one’s risk of cancer. In addition to cancer, it has also been linked to heightened rates of lymphoma and other diseases.
In one study, researchers determined that chronic exposure of ten parts per million or lower can be very dangerous. In the same study, they concluded that a worker exposed to ten parts per million over forty years is one hundred fifty-five times more likely to die from leukemia than a worker who did not suffer the same exposure.
The struggle between commercial interests versus human interests
This is a struggle in almost every conversation about environmental protection and ethical considerations when it comes to the use of dangerous chemicals and their risk of human exposure.
After all, there is a reason that companies use these chemicals – typically, that it saves them money or is optimal for certain production elements.
The reality of dealing with big manufacturing companies is that the human interests of protecting people’s health and the overall health of the natural world are, sadly, weighed against the potential loss of money.
In a fairly publicized case, ExxonMobil was forced to pay over 2 million dollars in a settlement after an investigation by Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality revealed that they were violating safety procedures regarding the handling of benzene in some of its facilities north of Baton Rouge.
In some of the many safety violations in those facilities, they were dumping excess naptha, a substance that includes benzene as a primary component. The ultimate result of this situation, as well as several others, was the introduction of new legislation in an effort to protect the health of workers and the environment.
EPA adopts measure for safer air
One of the biggest concerns of benzene contamination is that it dissolves and evaporates very easily, which means that it can be introduced into the environment very quickly. This makes benzene emissions, which mostly result from oil refineries, a huge danger to the health of people living in the coastal regions of Louisiana, Texas, and other states with a lot of refineries.
The EPA passed a regulation stating that petroleum factories now have to install air monitors which will report their benzene emissions in order to better tell how much benzene is being released and how it can be prevented from spreading. However, it still presents a risk to this area.
Although environmental protection often has to fight an uphill battle against huge corporate interests, it is still a critically important thing to do in order to prevent even higher rates of very preventable cancer. If you think you may have been exposed to benzene, you should schedule a screening appointment with your doctor right away.