Cancer-Causing Benzene Air Pollution Was Cut in Half During 2023: Report

New EPA benzene air pollution enforcement efforts come after environmental lawsuits helped bring more facilities into compliance, report finds

An initiative to monitor air pollution around the nation’s oil refineries suggests that there has been a sharp decline in the number of facilities releasing dangerous benzene emission levels, with only about 5% of all oil refineries in the U.S. reaching EPA “action levels.”

The data was included in a report published by the Environmental Integrity Project, indicating that only six of the 115 oil refineries in the U.S. have benzene air pollution levels that exceed levels considered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be unsafe, and three of those facilities are in Texas.

Benzene is an industrial chemical that is found in many consumer products, but is also a byproduct of oil refining and found in oil, gas, and other petroleum products.

Exposure to benzene emissions has been linked to an increased risk of several fatal forms of cancer and life-threatening health conditions, such as acute myeloid leukemia (AML), Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML), Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL), Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), Hairy Cell Leukemia (HCL), Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Multiple Myeloma, Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDL), Myelofibrosis, Myeloid Metaplasia, Aplastic Anemia and Thrombocytopenic Purpura. Long-term side effects of benzene exposure have also been proven to cause anemia, which is a condition that develops when your blood lacks enough healthy red blood cells or hemoglobin.

Research published in 2021 found benzene exposure is associated with an increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma, large B-cell lymphoma, follicular lymphoma and hairy cell leukemia cancers.

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Following the initiation of environmental lawsuits and heavy pushback from a variety of advocacy groups, the EPA imposed “action level” values for benzene on oil refineries and began tracking annual emissions across more than 200 oil plants.

The EPA set the “action level” at nine micrograms per cubic meter in 2015, but a report published last year indicated the EPA has continually failed to enforce benzene limits on oil refineries.

The new report tracks benzene emissions for 115 oil refineries in the U.S. Only six oil facilities exceeded EPA “action levels” in 2023 compared to 12 facilities in 2020, according to the findings.

Data indicates three of the oil refineries that exceeded the standard are in Texas. All three facilities are in or close to the Houston area.

The annual emissions from the Pemex plant in Houston increased to 17.3 micrograms per cubic meter in 2023, according to the data; nearly double the EPA’s action level. The Total Refinery facility in Texas has exceeded the EPA’s action level in every reporting period since 2019.

EPA Enforcement Efforts Credited

The EPA also expanded fence line monitoring rules for more than 200 chemical companies, to look for emissions including ethylene oxide, chloroprene, benzene, 1,3-butadiene, ethylene dichloride, and vinyl chloride. The rules are intended to reduce emissions near oil refineries by 6,200 tons annually.

The report also highlighted the corrective actions the EPA can impose if a facility exceeds the limits, including determining the cause of the emissions and calling on the facilities to correct the problem.

“Although we and others are sometimes critical of EPA, this is an example of a success story of regulations working to help protect neighborhoods near refineries from a dangerous pollutant,” said Eric Schaeffer, the Environmental Integrity Project’s executive director.

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