The petrochemical industry has spent at least $36 million to fund scientific research trying to minimize the dangers of benzene. This effort comes after independent studies have linked benzene to leukemia and other cancers. In 2004, the National Cancer Institute reported a study finding there’s no safe exposure level for people working with benzene.
Workers in the petrochemical industry have been among the most exposed to benzene and its effects. Benzene is a component of crude oil, and is used to make plastics, lubricants, dyes, pesticides, and adhesives. Over the last 10 years, lawsuits have been filed on behalf of workers who were sickened or died from benzene-related exposure, yet the industry is still trying to debate whether benzene is causing these rare cancers and other illnesses.
Federal regulators have instituted limits on benzene exposure. Peter Infante, a former director at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, told the Center for Public Integrity: “You’re still seeing elevated risks of leukemias and lymphomas among occupational groups exposed to benzene, as well as populations being polluted from these benzene sources.”
The Center for Public Integrity investigated the efforts of oil and chemical corporations, working with their trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, to cover-up or minimize the dangers of benzene. Their review of internal records, produced in part during lawsuits, “reveals the petrochemical industry went to great lengths to rebut studies showing harmful effects of benzene in low doses.”
Five major companies paid for research in China, where Benzene is still being used in workplaces: British Petroleum, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell Chemical. One study, called the Shanghai Health Study, was supposed to look at how benzene exposure affects workers’ health; however, reports indicate the study, overseen by the American Petroleum Institute, is not objective.
The Center for Public Integrity notes this is a similar strategy undertaken by the tobacco, asbestos, and plastics industries — trying to buy their own “science” in the face of growing evidence of the dangers of benzene exposure.
“The more they feel threatened by the outcome of independent research, the more they will quote-unquote invest in their own,” Celeste Monforton, a public health researcher at George Washington University told the Center for Public Integrity. “Litigation is continuing and potential for environmental exposures is still significant,” she said. “They need to protect their economic interests.”