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Article Details Chemisty Industry Efforts to Cover Up Benzene's Health Effects

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The Center for Public Integritypublished a fascinating story yesterday about a chemical called benzene, how it’s affecting workers’ health and the chemical industry’s efforts to downplay and diminish the serious health problems.

Benzene is a component of gasoline. It’s also used in making rubbers and dyes, and as an intermediate to manufacture other chemicals. It’s a known carcinogen, and for a decade, the National Cancer Institute has said there’s no safe threshold for people working with the chemical. But as the CPI story details, the chemical industry has spent millions to try to draw attention away from that research.

The article starts with the story of Texas carpenter John Thompson, who spent a decade working with benzene in chemical plants. He died in 2009 from leukemia.
Thompson died before a lawsuit filed by his family against benzene suppliers could play out in court, where science linking the chemical to cancer could be put on display. Over the past 10 years, however, scores of other lawsuits, most filed by sick and dying workers like Thompson, have uncovered tens of thousands of pages of previously secret documents detailing the petrochemical industry’s campaign to undercut that science. Internal memorandums, emails, letters and meeting minutes obtained by the Center for Public Integrity over the past year suggest that America’s oil and chemical titans, coordinated by their trade association, the  American Petroleum Institute, spent at least $36 million on research “ designed to protect member company interests,” as one 2000 API summary put it. Many of the documents chronicle an unparalleled effort by five major petrochemical companies to finance benzene research in Shanghai, China, where the pollutant persists in workplaces. Others attest to the industry’s longstanding interest in such “concerns” as childhood leukemia. Taken together, the documents — put in context by interviews with dozens of lawyers, scientists, academics, regulators and industry representatives — depict a “research strategy” built on dubious motives, close corporate oversight and painstaking public relations. They comprise an industry playbook to counteract growing evidence of benzene’s toxic effects, which continue to command the attention of federal and state regulators and be fiercely debated in court.
The efforts taken by the chemical industry to mask the effects of benzene detailed by the Center for Public Integrity article sound eerily similar to another case with local ties. For years, workers at Louisville’s B.F. Goodrich plant worked directly with vinyl chloride;so far, 26 have developed a rare type of liver cancer, and all have died from it. An investigation by PBS’ Bill Moyers uncovered the extent to which the company tried to hide the hazards.

Benzene is a chemical that’s present in Louisville’s air; the levels have been fairly consistent at the city’s toxic air monitors for the past decade. But these monitors measure what’s in the ambient air, not what workers at certain locations might be exposed to every day for eight or 10 hours straight.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventorylists 11 facilities in Louisville that have reported benzene releases. These include several Rubbertown companies—like DuPont, Valero and Marathon Petroleum terminals—and both of the city’s Ford assembly plants. Other companies in the city use the chemical, but don’t release it, so they don’t show up on the list. And there’s no telling how many local companies and local workers were exposed to benzene in the 1960s and 1970s, when safety requirements were more lax.

You can read the full article from the Center for Public Integrity here.

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Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.