Fracking in Texas may be at the heart of an increased number of earthquakes over the past decade, but that’s not the only danger of this relatively new form of oil extraction. For workers in the oil and gas industry, benzene exposure poses a health risk whose long-term effects are serious and may even be deadly.
In reporting on a study by the Centers for Disease Control, the Los Angeles Times explains that some workers at fracking sites are routinely exposed to benzene, a colorless gas that occurs naturally in gasoline and crude oil. The CDC recommends a limited exposure to benzene of 0.1 parts per million during a single, 12-hour shift. Researchers found that 15 of 17 samples were above that amount.
For the study, air samples were taken during the times that workers opened tank hatches at well sites to inspect contents during a fracking procedure called flow-back. They must stand above the hatches, breathing in fumes while measuring the liquid in the tank. Workers open the hatches between one and four times each hour, for between two and five minutes each time.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has set a much higher exposure limit of 1 part per million, which the samples were all lower than. The higher measure set by OSHA is the only measure that counts from a legal standpoint, however. OSHA typically has higher limits than the CDC, in part because of influencers in the oil and gas industry, as well as additional stakeholders.
Benzene disrupts the natural cellular processes in the body, the CDC says. Over time, it can limit the production of red blood cells in bone marrow or change the level of antibodies in the blood. Results in the former instance could lead to anemia, while the latter example can damage the immune system. Long-term exposure can even poison someone.
Immediate effects of over-exposure to benzene are serious. Symptoms range from dizziness, irregular heartbeat and tremors to tremors and unconsciousness. If ingested, a large amount of benzene can cause vomiting, dizziness and convulsions. Extreme levels of exposure can cause death.
If you are exposed to or ingest a large amount of benzene, move to an area with fresh air and get immediate medical attention. Remove contaminated clothing carefully and seal inside two plastic bags, being careful not to handle contaminated areas directly. Take a brisk shower afterward and allow emergency responders to remove the clothing.Work