I’ve been trying to serve the public good for a number of years now, and, still, the hardest cases I encounter are benzene cases. Any time a common carcinogen’s involved, there’s a certain difficulty in establishing cause and effect.
Even if a client was exposed to benzene every day of his or her job as an oil refinery worker or tire plants, it’s not always easy to prove this exposure caused his/her cancer–but that’s not the hard part. Sure, when we’re all exposed a number of carcinogens from a number of places everyday, the corporations have a good shot a deferring responsibility, but what makes these cases hard are the clients going through chemo for acute myeloid leukemia or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma who know that they got it at work and the company they worked 40-plus hours a week for and made profitable won’t listen to their case.
What spurred this old ghost? A friend of my associate who’d gone to Rhodes College in Memphis contacted him the other afternoon wondering what he could do about the Williams Refining Co.’s release of benzene (as much as 31% over federal limit) that went unreported by the company for four years (1997-2001). Sure, back in February of this year they were fined $2.2 million by EPA for violating the Clean Air Act, but, he asked, what about Memphisites? He doesn’t smoke, but was still breathing in (and drinking) their carcinogenic waste the entire time he was in Midtown.
He asked what he should do.
I advised him not to start smoking.
Benzene travels in the blood and becomes a metabolite stored in the bone marrow. The more your bones absorb, the greater likelihood of their producing cancerous cells. If nothing else, benzene, like asbestos, are loyal: they’ll stick around with you for life.
I’m not sure I should feel fortunate that the EPA finally found and fined the factory after four years or lucky that the refining company was in Memphis and not Nashville and that the Smokies keep the wind blowing west away from the capital. Whatever it is I’m supposed to feel, I don’t feel good.