December 16, 2014 Kim Krisberg 1Comment

America’s petrochemical industry has spent millions trying to discredit the science on benzene, a known human carcinogen linked to leukemia and other cancers, according to an investigative piece from reporter Kristen Lombardi at the Center for Public Integrity. Lombardi begins her story with the life of John Thompson, who spent much of his life working for the petrochemical industry in Texas. She writes:

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, he often encountered benzene, stored on job sites in 55-gallon drums, which he used as a cleaning solvent. He dipped hammers and cutters into buckets full of the sweet-smelling liquid; to expunge tar, he soaked gloves and boots in it.

Thompson never figured the chemical could do him harm. Not when it stung his hands or turned his skin chalky white. Not even when it made him faint. But after being diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia in 2006, relatives say, he came to believe his exposure to benzene had amounted to a death sentence. Oil and chemical companies knew about the hazard, Thompson felt, but said nothing to him and countless other workers.

According to the article, Thompson’s family eventually filed suit against benzene suppliers, and many similar lawsuits from sickened workers have followed. In the process, tens of thousands of previously secret documents have been uncovered that detail the industry’s systemic effort to undermine the science on benzene exposure. Lombardi reports that U.S. oil and chemical companies, under the auspices of the American Petroleum Institute, spent at least $36 million on research efforts to protect their business interests. Some of the uncovered documents detail an “unparalleled effort” by five major companies to fund benzene research in Shanghai, China, where benzene persists in the workplace. Lombardi’s article explores the Shanghai study in-depth and how petrochemical companies used the scientific process to “manufacture doubt” about the dangers of benzene. She quoted The Pump Handle’s own Celeste Monforton:

“The more they feel threatened by the outcome of independent research, the more they will quote-unquote invest in their own,” said Monforton, a public health researcher and lecturer at George Washington University, who has written about corporate corruption of science. Monforton considers the petrochemical companies’ study of workers exposed to benzene in Shanghai to be the most expensive and elaborate effort by any industry to try to refute damning scientific evidence.

The reason, in her mind, is clear: “Litigation is continuing and potential for environmental exposures is still significant,” she said. “They need to protect their economic interests.”

To read the full article, visit the Center for Public Integrity.

In other news:

Los Angeles Times: Earlier this month, the newspaper kicked off a four-part, in-depth series on the lives of agricultural workers in Mexico. Reporter Richard Marosi traveled across nine Mexican states interviewing workers whose labor is fueling the country’s agricultural export boom. The series uncovers horrible working conditions, penniless workers and the proliferation of illegal child labor. Just a few of Marosi’s findings: Workers are forced to pay inflated prices for basic necessities at company stores leaving them deep in debt; many laborers are “essentially trapped” in dilapidated housing, often without clean water and functioning toilets; and U.S. companies that buy the produce do little to help enforce basic worker protections. Marosi writes: “The contrast between the treatment of produce and of people is stark.” A Los Angeles Times editorial calling on U.S. firms to step up their role in ensuring worker protections is here.

The Salt Lake Tribune: Reporter Mike Gorrell remembers the 27 miners who lost their lives three decades ago in the Wilberg coal mine fire — Utah’s worst disaster in nearly a century. In the article, Gorrell interviews local officials and residents who responded to the disaster. Retired Sherriff Lamar Guymon said: “Wilberg taught me a lot about life and people, about how good people are and how bad people are. Some people capitalize on other people’s misery. Others step right up and give everything they’ve got.” In the aftermath of the disaster, the Mine Safety and Health Administration determined that a defective air compressor was mistakenly turned on and left running for 69 hours before self-combusting. It took almost a year to retrieve the bodies of the miners who were killed.

Huffington Post: In a big win for labor, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that employers can’t stop employees from using company email to organize and discuss workplace conditions outside of work. Reporter Dave Jamieson writes that the Dec. 11 decision “gives workers a statutory right to use work email systems for those purposes after hours, so long as they already have access to work email. The ruling overturns a Bush-era ruling by a more conservative labor board that said workers have no such right.”

Politico: Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., didn’t hold back during a Dec. 11 hearing of the Senate Committee on Public Works and the Environment on the federal response to the April 2013 chemical explosion at the West Fertilizer Company’s plant in West, Texas, which killed 15 and injured more than 100. Boxer questioned officials with OSHA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including OSHA head David Michaels, demanding to know more about the slow response to a White House executive order issued in the wake of the disaster that called for improving safety at chemical facilities. Reporter Mike Elk writes that federal officials have only completed four of the 15 tasks by the due dates put forth in the order. According to Elk, Boxer called the response “unacceptable” and “absolutely outrageous” and repeatedly asked the officials to provide a timeline for completing the tasks. Boxer said: “If I had a kid who lived in a hazard zone, I would be pulling my hair out right now.” To view a webcast of the hearing, click here.

Occupational Health & Safety: The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety is now accepting comments on its National Total Worker Health Agenda — you can find a draft of the agenda here. To submit comments, which are due by Dec. 22, visit and search for document CDC-2014-0014.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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