Benzene: The colourless killer
22nd Nov 2018
Described by the World Health Organisation as ‘a major public health concern’, human exposure to benzene has been linked with a range of severe and long-term health issues that are sadly being suffered by hard-working Australians. Although benzene is an established carcinogen and leukaemogen, this chemical is extensively used in many Australian manufacturing industries to the detriment of workers. Benzene is considered a valuable solvent and has become a key precursor in the production of a wide range of artificial compounds such as plastics, synthetic rubber, dyes and detergents.
By way of background, benzene is an aromatic hydrocarbon and a natural component of crude and refined petroleum. Also known as ‘benzol’, benzene is a colourless liquid which has a sweet odour and comes from both coal and petroleum sources.
The smell of benzene is akin to that of a lolly and is in fact so pleasant that it was initially used in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as after-shave lotion. Since World War II, the commercial use of benzene has grown to the extent that it surrounds us every day and is relied upon heavily in manufacturing.
Exposure can occur domestically as a result of the ubiquitous use of petrol products that contain benzene, including motor fuels and solvents. Exposure to cigarette smoke, whether actively or passively, along with the emissions from motor vehicles are also significant sources of exposure. In light of this, health authorities around the world have highlighted the need to reduce the exposure of workers and the general population to this toxic chemical.
Benzene is commonly used in refinery operations, chemical manufacturing, plastics and rubber manufacturing, and steel production. Accordingly, those at greatest risk of exposure include chemical workers, maintenance engineers, refinery workers, rubber workers, printers, leather workers, mechanics, steel workers, press workers, painters, petrol distributors and handlers, and firefighters. These workers are often unaware when they are being exposed to benzene given how quickly this chemical evaporates into the air. Additionally, the sugary smell is easily overlooked compared with other chemicals, such as bleach or a thiol-containing product, which have intolerable and distinctive odours.
Benzene exposure can be deadly for workers who are exposed for long periods of time or at high levels. Acute exposure can result in irritation of the skin, eyes and respiratory system and in the central nervous system depression and arrhythmias. Additionally, chronic exposure to benzene has been proven to result in renal tubular dysfunction, hepato-cellular damage, dermatitis, bone marrow failure, acute myeloid leukaemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma and genetic defects. Long-term or heightened exposure can also have a detrimental impact on the central nervous system and can cause personality or mood changes, fatigue, decreased motivation, concentration difficulties and impairment to memory. Often, workers exposed to high amounts of benzene will experience symptoms early on but won’t be diagnosed for a few years given the complexity of their illnesses, leaving them in years of limbo.
The dangers and effects of occupational exposure to benzene have been well known since the 1960s. As a result, governments around the world have made conscious efforts to reduce the use of this toxin. In August 2001, the Fuel Standard (Petrol) Determination was made which reduced the maximum volume of benzene in petrol to 1% between January 2002 and 2006. This had a positive impact, resulting in a reduction of benzene in Australian air.
Despite standards and public awareness about the use of benzene changing, the attitude of industry employers has not changed – many are continuing to expose their workers to high levels of benzene simply to increase output and profit. Even more worrying is the fact that some employers today fail to alert their workers to the fact that benzene is present in the workplace, and require staff to work in areas where they will be exposed without personal protective equipment. Employees have the right to expect they are working in an environment where their health and safety is the number one priority. Workers, not toxic chemicals, are an employer’s greatest resource and should not be put at risk for the benefit of production and dollars.
Luke Perilli was admitted to practice in March 2016 and has since practised in personal injuries litigation. He previously worked at Shine Lawyers between February 2016 and 2018, practising in Workers’ Compensation, Public Liability and Motor Vehicle Accident claims. Since February 2018 he has been employed by Maurice Blackburn and works in the asbestos diseases/dust team, located in the Melbourne office. He assists individuals suffering asbestos and dust-related illnesses in compensation claims. His practice includes common law claims and WorkCover claims.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).