Benzene — #1 In "Top 10 Toxic Ingredients Used By The Fossil Fuel Industries" Series

This is part of a 10-part series on the “Top 10 Toxic Ingredients Used By The Fossil Fuel Industries.” Read, share, and check in tomorrow to see all 10 toxic ingredients in one article.

1. Benzene

breast cancer testing
Breast cancer testing process via Shutterstock

Fossil Fuel Use: Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas

Benzene is a well-established carcinogen with specific links to leukemia,  breast and urinary tract cancers. Exposure to benzene reduces red and white blood cell production in bone marrow; decreases auto-immune cell function (T-cell and B-cells); and, has been linked to sperm-head abnormalities and generalized chromosome aberrations.

Benzene is one of the largest-volume petrochemical solvents used in the fossil fuel industry. It is a major component in all major fossil fuel production: oil, coal, and gas.

People are exposed to it from a variety of fossil fuel-based sources: inhaling automobile exhaust and gasoline fumes; industrial oil and coal combustion; and, of growing concern, the release of fracking waste.

The Colorado School of Public Health last year published a report which warned that the benzene from fracking operations gives local residents higher long-term cancer risks. “Benzene is the major contributor to lifetime excess cancer risks” for people living near fracking wells, said Lisa McKenzie, Ph.D., MPH, lead author of the study. (See the full study here.)

 In Atlanta, scientists from Emory University earlier this year reported a “significant increase” in non-hodgkins lymphomas in regions close to oil refineries and plants that release benzene.
In Canada, scientists reported unusually high rates of leukemia and non-hodgkins Lymphoma among residents living “downwind” from the “Tar Sands” fields in Alberta — corresponding with high benzene levels found in the same locations.
In Calcutta (India) researchers recently linked sudden “spikes” in certain cancers to a corresponding rise in Benzene emissions since 2007.

The damage benzene inflicts on the human body often takes many years to develop — but those effects are catastrophic.

Consider  the story of Camp Lejune:

Over a period of thirty years from the 1950s to the 1980s, troops stationed at the US military base at Camp Lejune, North Carolina, unknowingly drank and bathed in highly contaminated water containing benzene (and a host of other toxic chemicals,) originating from leaked fuel tanks and other commercial sources both on and off the base.

Starting in the 1970s, unusual forms of cancers associated with long-term exposure to benzene became rampant among the camp’s residents.  Mary Freshwater, a military wife who lived on the base for many years, told ABC news: “I was very active with the Officers’ Wives Club. We were at a party at one of my friend’s house one night. There were five of us in different stages of pregnancy. Every one of us lost their baby to a birth defect,” the 2012 report, as published by ABC, is reprinted, here:

On Nov. 30, 1977, Freshwater gave birth to a son, Russell Alexander Thorpe, but the baby was born with an open spine. He died one month later. At the time, few people were aware of the chemicals in the drinking water, nor the long-term health effects of those chemicals. Doctors suggested to Freshwater that she try to get pregnant again — and she did. Her second son, Charlie, was born without a cranium, and died the same day. Today, Freshwater is 68 years old and has been diagnosed with two different kinds of cancers, acute myeloid and acute lymphoma. She says doctors told her the diagnosis was consistent with exposure to chemicals such as benzene, which she was exposed to during her time at Camp Lejeune.

The full story of the contaminated water at Camp Lejune is told in the documentary, Semper Fi: Always Faithful.

The use of benzene, like other toxins used in oil and gas, is particularly insidious because the effects — as seen in the children of the military families at Camp Lejune — take many years to manifest. And due to lax regulations, these products have been rushed into use long before any long-term testing has been possible. “It takes about 20 years, let’s say, for solid tumors to develop after exposure to a chemical,” said Brian Schwartz, an environmental epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University.

The fossil fuel industry actively suppresses benzene disclosure and regulation. In April 2001, the Koch Petroluem Group (now Flint Hills Resources — still owned by the Koch brothers) “pleaded guilty to a felony charge of lying to the government about its benzene emissions.” The Koch brothers reported 1/149th of their actual benzene pollution to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. The company was fined $10 million and ordered to fund an additional $10 million in costs for environmental cleanup in South Texas.

Note From The Author

There are many reasons to reject fossil fuels now, after 200 years of their reign as society’s primary energy source.

History will articulate both the benefits provided to human society derived from fossil fuel energy technologies from 1750 to the present — and the extensive costs.

In addition to transportation, electricity, industrial power, military, and medical applications; fossil fuel technologies are also a core element behind war, political unrest, human rights abuses, extreme and permanent environmental degradation, and human disease.

Perhaps the most important historical legacy of fossil fuels, however, will be their collective role as the chief protagonist behind what may be the most urgent long-term global crisis in human history: greenhouse gas–induced climate change.

It is my hope that this list, focusing on immediate public health risks (apart from climate change), serves as an adjunct to the myriad other reasons to end the use of fossil fuels — all of them — completely.

The ten ‘ingredients’ listed in this article are not intended as an exclusive list. The major fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) each use hundreds, if not thousands, of chemicals — often not disclosed — many of which are highly dangerous to human health. Attempting a comprehensive list of all the harmful chemicals used willingly by the oil, coal, and gas industries would be far beyond the scope of this blog series.

This article, rather, represents some of the more commonly cited toxic ingredients in the public literature; a ‘starting point’ in reviewing the overall public health dangers inherent across the spectrum in all three major fossil fuel extraction industries: oil, coal, and natural gas.

Don Lieber
New York City
November 2013

Stay tuned for the remaining 3 of the top 10 toxic ingredients used by the fossil fuel industries.

About the Author

Don Lieber has written extensively on human rights, war and disarmament, and environmental issues. His work has been published by the United Nations, The Associated Press, The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, DeSmog Blog, and many others. He also plays bass for the NYC-based band "Wifey" and scrubs surgeries.
  • sherrie

    I know someone who was stationed in Camp lejune during the 1960s- I recall hearing he had been ill, now I’m interested to find out exactly what his diagnosis was and would like him to be aware of all this- To use a phrase that is, unfortunately, increasingly appropriate: Depraved indifference !

  • sherrie

    I know someone who was stationed in Camp lejune during the 1960s- I recall hearing he had been ill, now I’m interested to find out exactly what his diagnosis was and would like him to be aware of all this- To use a phrase that is, unfortunately, increasingly appropriate: Depraved indifference !