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Don’t Inhale: The Dangers of Benzene


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Houston, TX…The Energy Capital of the World houses the headquarters of more than 500 oil and gas exploration and production firms in the country. With this concentration of chemicals comes the risks of contamination or exposure. Unfortunately, a fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company located in Deer Park, a suburb of Houston, caused elevated levels of Benzene in the area on Thursday morning.

When we think of gasoline, auto emissions and cigarette smoke, we think dangerous, toxic, hazardous. These all share at least one thing in common, and that’s the chemical benzene. It has been known that benzene is linked to leukemia and blood issues, like the lessening of white or red blood cells. These studies have been done with chronic exposure to moderate levels of benzene (the supposedly safe 5 parts per million or less). A study on Chinese factory workers showed that chronic exposure to any amount of benzene, even less than 1 part per million, revealed a lessening of white blood cells. And the longer the exposure, the less white blood cells. But “There’s no reason for alarm,” said Herman Kattlove, MD, medical editor with the American Cancer Society. “Don’t smoke. Avoid auto pollution. And hold your breath while you pump gas.” Thanks Herman. We’ll keep that in mind.

Benzene is a colorless or light yellow liquid with a faintly sweet smell, and evaporates quickly. If you breathe high levels of benzene, you might experience drowsiness, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, headaches, tremors, confusion, or even death. In addition to the decrease in blood cells, exposure can lead to excessive bleeding, a compromised immune system, and an increase in susceptibility to infections.

Following the incident in Deer Park, ITC officials issued a “shelter-in-place” warning for people to stay in their homes or their current building. Luckily, the warning was lifted several hours later because the benzene levels measured so low (1 to 5 parts per million as opposed to the potentially toxic 50 parts per million). Dr. Arch Carson, an expert in industrial and environmental toxicity, described the warning as a preventive measure. The small amount of benzene detected was not enough for health concerns, but it was a wise choice to issue the warning in case a larger amount of the chemical leaked from the plant.

There is no clear consensus on the safety level of benzene (if there is any), but it is wise to avoid it as much as possible. If you think you have been exposed to benzene, the Center for Disease Control recommends removing your clothing, washing yourself, and disposing your clothing. Seek medical attention as soon as possible. The Deer Park incident seems to have been a mild one, but it is essential to be aware of the dangers of benzene, and the precautions and steps to take to minimize exposure. Other benzene-related cases include the sunscreen benzene recall and the ongoing Camp Lejeune water contamination incident. If you believe you have been affected by benzene, call Reich and Binstock today, and we will make sure you get the help and compensation you deserve.




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