The mineral asbestos and the chemical benzene are vastly different products widely used in industry. What they do have in common is that they are highly toxic to humans.
Asbestos is a strong, fibrous, fire-resistant mineral that was widely used in building materials like insulation as well as other applications. In 1897, asbestos was linked to mesothelioma, a rare but deadly form of cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs, chest and other internal organs. It took more than a century for the U.K. to ban the use of asbestos. It is still used in the U.S., though use has declined substantially since the 1980s.
Asbestos exposure has been linked to mesothelioma as well as lung cancer and the incurable lung ailment called asbestosis. But these diseases can lie dormant for up to 50 years. Once diagnosed, the disease proves fatal within a year or two. Millions of dollars in compensation have been paid out to victims of asbestos exposure worldwide, and with the long dormancy of diseases related to asbestos exposure, these payouts will likely continue for years.
Benzene is a widely used raw material used to make industrial chemicals. It’s widely used in the U.S. due to its flexibility and application. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), more than 238,000 people are occupationally exposed to benzene daily. High levels of the chemical have also been found in more than two-thirds of the 1,684 most serious hazardous waste sites in the U.S.
For people exposed to benzene, the substance quickly enters the bloodstream and is converted into metabolites in the liver. And while the metabolites leave the body within 48 hours, the damage they cause depends on the concentration.
Brief exposure to high levels of benzene can be deadly. Lower levels can produce symptoms such as dizziness, vomiting and unconsciousness. Long-term exposure can wreak havoc on red blood cells, lowering their counts and leading to anemia. It can even result in a type of leukemia called acute myeloid leukemia (AML), as well as other blood cancers.
Like asbestos, cancer diagnoses from benzene exposure can take years and even decades to surface.
In the U.S., industries are now required to monitor benzene levels both inside and outside their factory perimeters. But some countries have not adopted stringent regulations.
“Until tighter legislative controls are introduced, the increasing prevalence of benzene use within industrial applications means millions of workers around the world are dying through over-exposure every year,” said Steve Billingham, CEO of Duvas Technologies, in HazardEx. “Governments around the world need to come together in partnership and draw up a clear structure for the international regulation of benzene.”