Benzene Cancer Link: Study Strengthens Cancer Link
Oil and gas workers are certainly aware of the hazards surrounding them. They work around flammable product, they use heavy equipment, tools, and sometimes work high above the ground. One danger they may often overlook is the air they breathe, which may be laced with dangerous chemicals that may cause long-lasting negative health effects.
One such chemical is benzene, to which all oil workers are exposed to some degree. Benzene is commonly present in crude oil and gasoline, and it has long been linked to several types of cancer, including leukemia, plastic anemia and non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma. A new study has emerged in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, entitled “Myelodysplastic Syndrome and Benzene Exposure Among Petroleum Workers: An International Pooled Analysis,” that gives a fuller picture of the health effects of benzene in the workplace, and actually strengthens the cancer link.
The study combines data from three other major studies of petroleum workers that were conducted in the UK, Australia and Canada that were conducted previously. Among the study’s findings was that workers who had been exposed to benzene long term were significantly more likely to develop Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), also known as pre-leukemia, as well as Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML).
One surprising development from this study is that it found that short term and relatively low short term exposures to benzene can also lead to cancer. In fact, their findings suggested that OSHA standards may be insufficient, since exposures to more than 3 ppm benzene for as little as 15 minutes at a time left workers five to six times as likely to develop MDS, while OSHA standards require that workers be protected from benzene exposures greater than 5 ppm averaged over any 15-minute period. The study also found that oil workers who had been exposed to benzene had triple the risk of contracting chronic myelogenous (or myeloid) leukemia (CML) than those who had not been exposed.
As new knowledge is obtained, changes in how employers protect workers from exposure to dangerous chemicals must be found, and federal and state standards must adjust. It is clear from this study that benzene in the oil industry is deadly, and steps must be taken to limit exposure as much as possible. Whether that means supplying all workers with respirators or full face masks or something else, regulators and employers will have to figure that out, create adequate regulations and then really enforce them.