Jarrett McElheney was a normal 4-year-old boy in Athens, Ga. He loved swimming in an inflatable pool in the family’s yard. He was energetic and fun-loving, until he was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL. While in the hospital’s waiting room, Jarrett’s parents, Jill and Jeff McElheney, found out that a neighbor’s child had also been diagnosed with leukemia.
Jarrett’s doctor wrote a letter to federal environmental regulators describing the two children’s close proximity to Southeast Terminals, one of the nation’s 1,500 bulk-oil terminals, containing gasoline, diesel and fuel oil. The doctor requested that the refinery owners, BP and TransMontaigne, investigate whether or not chemicals could be contaminating the water, and if it could possibly have been a contributing factor to the children’s leukemia.
The neighborhood’s water supply was drawn from an unpermitted well, and when it was tested by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), high amounts of benzene was found in levels up to 13 parts per billion – a level that is 26 times higher than the federal safety standard. In 2011, Jarrett’s parents filed a lawsuit against BP and TransMontaigne, alleging the benzene came from its nearby facility.
Jarrett is now in his early 20s, healthy and in remission, but doesn’t live without the fatigue and other lasting effects of childhood leukemia. He, along with many others such as oil refinery workers, have suffered from cancer and/or blood disorders allegedly linked to benzene exposure.
The Center for Public Integrity uncovered internal memorandums, emails, letters and meeting minutes coordinated by the American Petroleum Institute (API) and has made more than 7,000 of the 200,000 previously secret documents accessible to the public. Within the documents is information about the $36 million that five major petrochemical companies spent on research in Shanghai, China, about the possible effects of benzene in workplaces.
Some believe the documents are evidence of a conspiracy by the industry to downplay the health effects of benzene, while others believe it is legitimate, unbiased research that reveals information both positive and negative.
Regardless of the motive behind the heavily funded research, the concern about the benzene’s alleged link to leukemia is continuing to grow, sparking a national move to tighten laws regarding exposure to the pollutant. In June of 2014, the state of California lowered the long-term exposure to benzene level to 1ppb from the former 20ppb, making this among the lowest in the U.S.