Benzene is a colorless, flammable chemical often used in manufacturing processes. It is also present in certain household substances such as detergents, dyes, and pesticides. Given the chemical’s widespread usage, concerns about adverse health impacts from benzene exposure have grown in recent years. In particular, research has found links between benzene toxicity and the development of leukemia. More recently, benzene sparked additional controversy with consumers. An independent testing lab detected benzene in several aerosol sunscreens, prompting recalls. Potential benzene exposure at this scale provides a major runway for consumer protection legal action. For litigators taking on benzene exposure cases, here’s what you need to know about the chemical’s carcinogenic risks.
Benzene is a chemical compound classified as an aromatic hydrocarbon. Benzene is a clear, colorless, highly flammable liquid with a gasoline-like odor. It’s mainly used in industrial settings as a base material for oil, gasoline, plastics, rubbers, and lubricants. Benzene is also a byproduct of oil refining. As such, benzene exposure is most commonly an occupational hazard in the chemical industry, petroleum refineries, or oil pipelines.
Benzene is present in many industrial workplaces. As such, the Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set guidelines surrounding safe practices. OSHA permits an exposure limit to benzene of one part per million (ppm). In comparison, most people can start to smell benzene at approximately 60 ppm of air, and at 100 ppm most people will recognize it as benzene.
In recent decades, benzene’s widespread applications have prompted greater concern for its probable toxicity. Benzene is a known carcinogen and research has linked benzene exposure specifically to leukemia. High levels of benzene exposure can cause acute myeloid leukemia, myelodysplastic syndromes, and is likely linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Other research also indicates benzene exposure is associated with childhood leukemia.
Benzene can lead to the development of cancer via reactive metabolites. This term refers to materials left over after a molecule is processed by the body. In the case of benzene, these molecular remnants are carcinogenic. Benzene’s reactive metabolites can cause chromosomal abnormalities, DNA damage, or permanent DNA alterations. This, in turn, causes gene mutations that can trigger leukemias like acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS).
In 2021, Valisure, an independent lab that tests consumer products, found several aerosol sunscreens contained high levels of benzene. These levels were greater than two ppm. This discovery spurred a voluntary recall of certain products manufactured by Johnson & Johnson. The products recalled include:
● Neutrogena Beach Defense aerosol sunscreen
● Neutrogena Cool Dry Sport aerosol sunscreen
● Neutrogena Invisible Daily defense aerosol sunscreen
● Neutrogena Ultra Sheer aerosol sunscreen
● Aveeno Protect + Refresh aerosol sunscreen
Benzene’s presence in aerosol sunscreens presents additional risk factors for cancer. Greater research into this topic, however, benzene in an aerosol form enhances its ability to contaminate the surrounding air. This increases the chance of inhalation.
Further, benzene within sunscreen poses an obvious danger of dermal absorption. Benzene exposure to the skin can cause irritation, blisters, and dryness. Dermal exposure is a slower process, compared to inhalation, however, it remains a serious concern given sunscreen’s method of application.
This Litigation Guide was medically reviewed by Dr. Rena Zheng, MD.
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