What’s So Bad About Benzene?

When hazardous waste from the East Palestine train derailment ended up in Roachdale, locals turned to the League of Women Voters for some insight on the decision to import the waste. Since the waste needed to be handled by a qualified company, and officials, as well as scientists, determined that the company was qualified, it didn’t seem the League’s climate team had any additional insights to offer.

The concern of citizens matters, however. Our citizens are attentive and ask good questions.

Then just weeks later, the massive fire in Richmond, Indiana, exposed people to highly toxic chemicals, including benzene and vinyl chloride, two chemicals common in crude oil, gasoline, cigarette smoke, plastics, resins, nylon, synthetic fabrics, motor vehicle exhaust, and industrial emissions. Benzene, which the CDC and WHO both say there is no safe level of exposure to, is also found in some lubricants, rubbers, drugs, detergents, and pesticides. It’s found in the air around gas stations. We breathe a bit in when drivers of gas-powered vehicles gun their engines, burn rubber, and belch exhaust from their tailpipes.

In Richmond, two thousand residents were moved, medical offices closed, and surgeries postponed, as the IndyStar noted because so many toxic chemicals were detected in the air after the plastics at the recycling factory burned.

The factory’s fire prevention systems were a fire code disaster, and the fire could have been prevented, but also, we citizens can take action to reduce such a disaster by reducing our plastic usage, and the need to recycle plastic, which is a forever product. Plastic does not break down. It breaks up into particles and polymers. It ends up in the air, the water, the meat that many eat, and ultimately in our bodies. When it’s created, recycled, or burned for energy, the chemicals emitted whittle away at our health.

What’s so bad about benzene, since it ranks in the top twenty chemicals in production volume in the US? According to the CDC, it works against us by causing cells to work improperly. It can cause bone marrow to fail to produce enough red blood cells, leading to anemia. It can damage the immune system by changing blood levels of antibodies and loss of white blood cells. In women, long-term exposure includes excessive bleeding and irregular menstrual periods, and in all humans, it includes increased chances of cancer.

What’s to be done about the growing risks associated with such chemicals?

Avoid tobacco smoke. Reduce the demand for plastics and petroleum-based products so that the industry doesn’t need to use benzene, especially single-use plastics, petroleum-based resins, furniture wax, paints and detergents. Finally, gear up for electrified vehicles, cooking appliances, and heating/cooling systems.

While many of us are using tax rebates and savings to install heat pumps, purchase EVs and even install solar panels, not everyone can do all those higher-dollar investments at once. But we can change our little habits and choices. Here are some to challenge yourself with:

  • Reduce plastic demand by reducing take-out food, and avoiding disposable plastic forks, spoons, knives, cups, straws, and wrappers. Purchase fewer items in snack sizes which require more plastic wrapping. Bring reusable bags to the store. Swap stretchy silicone coverings or beeswax wrappers for plastic wrap. Purchase bamboo-based items such as toothbrushes, disposable servingware, and bandaids. Use paper-based tape to ship and wrap. In place of bows and other plastic decorations, buy scarves secondhand and cut them into strips and tie for bows or hand decorate with crayons. Plain brown paper or the old Sunday funnies are still great ways to wrap a present.
  • Purchase cleaning agents not stored in plastics. Shampoo can be bought in bars. (Hint: avoid shampoos with sulfates which are harsh to your hair anyway.) Avoid liquid soaps sold and shipped in plastic containers. Toothpaste is now available as a chewable. Laundry detergent now comes in dissolving sheets that are stacked in cardboard. Some kinds of deodorant come in paper push-up containers or small glass jars that can be recycled (Only about nine percent of plastic is recycled, so glass, metal and paper are better storage choices.)
  • Invest in high-quality natural fabrics such as wool, cotton, linen, and flax. Rayon, polyester, viscose, and other synthetic fabrics all require toxic chemicals and petroleum by-products to produce.

It’s hard to avoid all such products. Wendell Berry noted that “We’re all complicit in the things we may be trying to oppose.” When we are here trying to oppose the use of products that do irreparable harm to our water, air, land and bodies, we may not achieve a perfect turnaround, but we can do better. It comes down to mindful choice and reduced consumption. Pause before paying and ask, “Do I really want or need this? Could I do without, make it myself, or find a less toxic version of it?”

– The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan, multi-issue political organization which encourages informed and active participation in government. For information about the League, visit the website; or, visit the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, Indiana Facebook page.