Benzene is a dangerous toxin that has been determined to be a carcinogen. Scientists agree that there is no safe level of exposure to this chemical, whether low-level or high-level occurring over a short or long period. It has been linked to certain types of cancers, including Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) and Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS). Railway workers are especially at risk for both, but especially to MDS because of their continual low-level exposure to diesel fumes, which has been linked to this life-threatening medical condition. Diesel fumes contain many types of chemicals, but benzene is one of the most dangerous.
What is Benzene?
Benzene is a petroleum-based chemical that can be found occurring naturally or from being manufactured from other sources. At room temperature, it appears as a clear or light yellow liquid that smells sweet. It becomes a dangerous vapor as it evaporates into the air. While benzene can be found in gasoline, crude oil and diesel fuel, it is also used to produce other chemicals and materials including paints, rubber, and pesticides. The use of benzene is highly regulated because of the health risks associated with being exposed to it.
How Are Railway Workers Exposed to Benzene?
Workers in industrial and commercial manufacturing plants are at risk for being exposed to benzene on a continual basis. However, railroad workers are especially at risk because they are constantly exposed to diesel exhaust. The problem of blue clouds of exhaust from diesel fumes hovering over two of Chicago’s major rail stations, Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center has been reported on numerous times. The fumes back up into the stations from the trains’ diesel emissions.
While the focus of the article was directed more to the exposure of commuters, who passed through the station and its platforms on their way to work, railroad workers continually receive higher levels of exposure on a daily basis during the course of their shifts. In late 2015, despite improvements including the addition of high-efficiency filters to railway cars, engine retrofits to older trains and requiring trains to be shut down after 10 minutes of idling, high levels of diesel exhaust and soot are still present. This has prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to exercise its powers against Metra, Amtrak and the property owners of each station.
What are Symptoms of Benzene Exposure?
Exposure to benzene occurs by inhaling its vapors, having skin contact or by drinking or eating items that have been contaminated by the chemical. Symptoms of short-term exposure may include nausea, dizziness, headaches and if the level is high enough, death. High-level exposure to benzene can cause acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).
Individuals who are continually exposed to benzene, even at low levels are at a higher risk for developing different types of cancer and chronic disorders such as Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), which can lead to leukemia. Long-term benzene exposure normally attacks blood cells in the body by causing them to malfunction. It affects the bone marrow and interrupts the production of red blood cells. When this happens, the person affected may develop anemia, infections, unusual bruising, or excessive bleeding.
What is MDS?
MDS is a cancer that rapidly advances to AML in one-third of the people who develop it. It has received attention in the news as celebrities such as Robin Roberts of Good Morning America brought attention to the disorder by making her health struggle with it public. Screenwriter Nora Ephron also struggled with the condition for several years before succumbing to leukemia a few years ago.
This condition can occur when the special cells that form blood within the bone marrow are damaged. The number of one or more types of the blood cells, including red, white or platelets may be reduced in quantity because of the damage that occurs to blood stem cells.
Treatment for MDS and Its Survival Rate
According to the American Cancer Society, there are 13,000 new cases of MDS diagnosed each year. The three-year survival rate for MDS without aggressive treatment is only 35 percent.
MDS is treated with chemotherapy. But the best chance for being cured is through a stem cell transplant, which is the treatment that Ms. Roberts received. This involves using high-doses of chemotherapy and/or complete body irradiation to kill all the blood cells in the bone marrow. The patient then receives blood-forming stem cells from a matching donor.
What Are Railway Workers’ Rights for Compensation?
Railroads are obligated to provide safe working conditions for their employees. Under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, claims can be made by railroad workers who suffer illnesses, such as MDS that are related to benzene and exposure to other toxic chemicals.