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Watchdog group alleges industry leaders buried horrifying health effects of common chemical: 'These people flat-out lied'

According to Public Health Watch, a misinformation campaign has helped the industry avert more rigorous regulations.

According to Public Health Watch, a misinformation campaign has helped the industry avert more rigorous regulations.

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A public health watchdog group recently revealed that companies such as Shell have been burying evidence of the dangers of benzene, a chemical that is used to make dyes, detergents, rubbers, plastics, and pharmaceuticals.

What happened?

Public Health Watch reviewed corporate documents about benzene from lawsuits, interviews with scientists, lawyers, and other experts. According to the organization, the research unearthed a pattern of industry deception and denial about the dangers of the chemical. 

"These people flat-out lied to the regulators," said Eric Williams, a lawyer in Metairie, Louisiana, who was involved in a lawsuit against Shell.

Why is public deception about benzene concerning?

Benzene regulation has been a hot topic for years. Back in 1977, a government study found that workers who had been exposed to the chemical in concentrations once considered safe had a five to 10 times greater risk of developing leukemia than the general public, Public Health Watch reported. Benzene has also been tied to non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other cancers.

The industry has maintained that benzene is only harmful in high doses, but a confidential 1943 report from Shell indicated that prolonged exposure to low concentrations of the chemical could actually be more dangerous. 

According to Public Health Watch, a misinformation campaign has helped the industry avert more rigorous regulations.

For example, the occupational exposure limit for benzene has remained at 1 part per million for decades, while there is no federal standard for the chemical in ambient air. This means that people who live in industrialized communities can inhale heavy doses of the carcinogen, the group said. 

Dangers can also come from unsuspecting sources. A shocking new study found that gas-powered appliances can increase levels of benzene in the home. According to the study, "indoor concentrations of benzene formed in the flames of gas stoves can be worse than average concentrations from secondhand smoke."

If you use a gas appliance, you can protect yourself from benzene inhalation by examining the ventilation systems in your home or making the switch to an electric or induction stove.

Benzene is not solely to blame for toxic air pollution, and no matter the source, it can cause major health impacts. Oil and gas production alone caused 7,500 excess deaths, 2,200 new cases of childhood asthma, and 410,000 asthma exacerbations in 2016.

What's being done about benzene?

Because there is no ambient federal standard for benzene, regulation is left to states. This has resulted in a range of policies. For instance, Texas says people can be exposed to up to 180 parts per billion in an hour without experiencing serious health effects, while California has a safety guideline of 8 parts per billion.

The Environmental Protection Agency has made some progress to protect people from benzene over the years, however. In 1989, it established national emission standards for hazardous pollutants, including benzene. A 2007 rule requires oil refiners to gradually reduce the amount of the chemical in gasoline, and in 2015, the agency required refineries to monitor benzene emissions at their fence lines, according to the watchdog report. 

The EPA is now asking about 200 chemical manufacturing plants that release benzene and other harmful air pollutants to improve the efficiency of their flares and do more to stop leaks.

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