Benzene lawsuits usually name large industrial employers for exposing a worker to the chemical. Benzene is one of the 20 most widely produced chemicals in the U.S. and is used by dozens of industries.
It is also a known cause of cancer and exposure is strictly limited by government regulators. But some researchers believe the benzene exposure limits set by those rules are still too high.
Lawsuits Blame Cancer on Benzene Exposure
Benzene lawsuits claim that on-the-job exposure to the chemical caused blood-related cancers.
Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services list benzene as a “known human carcinogen.” A carcinogen is a substance that can cause cancer or helps it grow in the body.
Types of Cancer Frequently Named in Benzene Lawsuits
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
- Acute myeloid leukemia
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia
- Acute lymphocytic leukemia
- Chronic Myeloid Leukemia
- Multiple myeloma
U.S. Benzene Exposure Limits May Be Too High
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration limits workplace exposure to benzene over an 8-hour day to no more than 1 part-per-million, or 1 ppm. That means air in the workplace can have no more than 1 part benzene for every million parts of air. OSHA also limits short-term exposure to 5 ppm for any 15-minute part of the workday.
However, National Cancer Institute researchers have found that there may be no safe level of benzene exposure. Their 2004 study in the Annals of Work Exposures and Health found Chinese factory workers showing indications of bone marrow issues that can precede cancer. The workers were exposed to benzene levels considered safe in the U.S.
The chemical is used in hundreds of ways. It occurs naturally in crude oil and gasoline. It’s used in paints, glues and solvents. And it’s used to make other chemicals and synthetics as well. Thousands of people are exposed to it at work every day.
Jobs and Industries with Long-Term Benzene Exposure Risks
- Adhesive production workers
- Barge and dock workers
- Chemical workers
- Factory workers who use solvents
- Installers who use glues and solvents
- Mechanics or auto body workers
- Oil rig workers
- Paper and pulp workers
- People who work around gasoline
- People who work with pesticides
- Pipeline workers
- Plumbers and pipefitters
- Railroad workers
- Refinery workers
- Rubber workers
- Shoe and leather workers
- Synthetic rubber workers
- Truck drivers
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Industry Tried to Hide Benzene Dangers
A 2014 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found the petrochemical industry “went to great lengths” to quash scientific studies that showed a cancer risk from low-level benzene exposure.
The nonprofit investigative journalism group reviewed 20,000 internal memos and communications. The documents included evidence that the industry knew about the link between benzene and leukemia since at least 1948. That year, the industry’s trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, concluded that “the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero.”
The American Petroleum Institute spent $36 million on studies “designed to protect member company interests” to hold back stronger workers protections and head off benzene lawsuits.
But 30 years later, API challenged federal regulations setting the 1 ppm limit on benzene exposure in the workplace. The legal battle lasted almost 10 years before OSHA won at the U.S. Supreme Court and the limit remained in place.
Verdicts and Settlements
Benzene lawsuits can be complicated, often requiring lawyers with environmental, labor law and medical expertise to prove a connection between benzene exposure and a person’s cancer.
Few cases can go to trial because they often end in large judgments against companies that made or distributed benzene. But settlements can also be costly for companies.
Tire Workers’ Families Win $21 Million Benzene Verdict Against Chevron
In March 2019, a California jury awarded $21.4 million to the families of two brothers who died after decades of working with solvents containing benzene in an Arkansas tire factory. The families of Gary and Randy Eaves sued California-based Chevron. The company bought the solvent’s maker, Unocal, in 2005.
Gary died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2015. Randy died of leukemia in 2018.
Both brothers worked at times as “spray booth operators,” during which they sprayed the solvent onto tires. Gary Eaves also carried tires after they were sprayed. Their lawsuit claimed that none of the workers wore protective clothing or respirators and Chevron never warned them about the dangers of the company’s chemicals.
Multiple Companies Pay $6.3 Million to Settle Auto Mechanic’s Benzene Lawsuit
A group of paint manufacturers, distributors and retailers paid a total of $6.3 million to settle a benzene lawsuit just days before it was supposed to go to trial in July 2019.
Jimmy Thomas was an auto mechanic and painter who claimed benzene in their products caused his myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS. MDS is a type of cancer that affects blood and bone marrow.
Thomas had worked in auto repair from 1967 until 2008. He used paint strippers, solvents and other products containing benzene during that time.
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