Benzene & Childhood Leukemia: One Family’s Fight

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Benzene A Known Carcinogen

Benzene is a chemical that naturally occurs within petroleum, and for decades, it has been used as a building block for various plastics, resins, fuels, solvents, synthetic fibers, rubbers, lubricants, dyes, detergents, drugs and pesticides. Benzene is a known carcinogen.  It has been linked to various forms of leukemia and cancer, including strong ties to acute myeloid leukemia, a vicious blood cancer that affects approximately 20,000 people per year.
Because of the high volume of use, some 238,000 people may be occupationally exposed to high doses of benzene in the United States. Some industries and jobs that could expose workers to Benzene include;

  • Benzene and various petroleum production processes (petrochemicals/petroleum refining)
  •  Plastic manufacturing;
  •  Rubber tire manufacturing;
  • Automobile / automobile service industry;
  • Railroad industry;
  • Rubber workers;
  • Laboratory technicians; and
  • Gas station employees.

Jarrett McElheney was just four years old when he was diagnosed with leukemia. Within a week, his leukemia was linked to his family’s close proximity to Southeast Terminals, a group of several 10,000-gallon tanks containing gasoline, diesel, and fuel oil, which are products that contain Benzene.

Jarrett, now in his early twenties, will likely be affected by his leukemia for the rest of his life.

Jarrett’s Leukemia Story

It was 1998 when Jill McElheney, Jarrett’s mom, first learned of her son’s diagnosis.“I heard the words,” Jill recalled in a 2014 interview, “and I only knew the bald heads and the sadness.”
Jarrett was not the only child in the neighborhood to develop leukemia. In the waiting room, Jill learned that a neighbor’s child had been recently diagnosed with the same condition. Jarrett’s doctor requested an investigation to determine whether high levels of chemicals could have contaminated the water.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) found several chemicals such as carbon tetrachloride and 1,2-dichloroethane in Oakwood’s water. Its benzene levels were as high as 13ppb – 26 times higher than the federal safety standard. The well was closed, and residents’ homes were connected to the public water source.

Consequences For Southeast Terminal Owners

In 2011, the McElheneys filed a lawsuit against BP, TransMontaigne and seven other previous owners of the Southeast Terminals, alleging that the “illegal discharge and release of toxic chemicals” contaminated the surrounding environment and caused Jarrett to develop leukemia.
In court filings, the companies denied the allegations and dismissed any link between benzene and childhood leukemia. Last year, defense lawyers invoked a familiar tactic: they cited the Pyatt review to support their claims that the chemical couldn’t have caused Jarrett’s illness. The family recently has agreed on a settlement in principle and is working toward resolving the litigation.
“I thought, ‘This is par for the course,’” said Jill, who has read some of the industry documents uncovered by the lawsuit. “The oil industry has fought regulations and lawsuits for workers and adults. Now they’re going to do it with children.”

Benzene & Leukemia

Jarrett’s situation is rare. As we mentioned before, the majority of people exposed to benzene are workers. Many times, the workers are exposed for years without knowing it exists in the products they are working with or without knowing the dangerous side effects.
The oil industry, as Jill McElheney knows firsthand, has an army of defense lawyers ready to deny claims from those that get sick from the company’s pollution. If you or a loved one has been sickened after exposure to a workplace hazard, get a personal injury attorney on your side. Call 314.444.4444 for a free, confidential consultation.

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