In a report published by The Hague in February 2014, the Dutch Expert Committee on Occupational Safety (DECOS) recommended that European countries significantly reduce their exposure limits for benzene, from 1 part per million (1 ppm) to 0.2 ppm, as an 8-hour time weighted average concentration (TWA). This recommendation was based on the Committee's review of the content of scientific publications, regarding the health effects of benzene exposure, prior to October 2013, together with its consideration of the reported adverse health effects of benzene exposure.
Benzene is a sweet-smelling, colorless liquid which is commercially produced from coal and petroleum sources. It is used primarily in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, and also as a gasoline additive. It is also present, in very small amounts, in some automotive products, in some sealants and adhesives, and in some lithographic printing inks and supplies.
Benzene is a known carcinogen when one is exposed to it in large quantities. Benzene exposure in large amounts can be irritating to both the skin and the lungs. It is believed to be toxic to the bone marrow. It long has been associated with an increased risk of leukemia, including acute myeloid leukemia and acute non-lymphocytic leukemia.
In the United States there are three organizations which have established benzene exposure limits. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set a permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 1 ppm (8 hr. TWA for an 8 hour day and a 40 hour work week). It also has set a 15 minute peak exposure limit of 5 ppm. This is same exposure limit now in effect in many European countries, which DECOS has now recommended be lowered.
By contrast, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) has set a threshold limit value (TLV) of 0.5 ppm (8 hr. TWA), and a peak exposure limit of 2.5 ppm. In addition, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has set a recommended exposure limit (REL) of 0.1 ppm, and a peak exposure limit of 1 ppm. As can be seen, that ACGIH benzene exposure limits are higher than the current OSHA and European exposure limits, while the NIOSH limits are lower.
There is much that is still unknown about the mechanisms by which benzene exposure affects human health, about the exposure levels at which adverse health effects may occur in humans, and about what the extent of those effects may be. However, ever since the first benzene exposure limits were established in the United States, in 1980, the trend has been toward recommendations in favor of lower those exposure limits. It should be noted that industry has generally responded to this trend by reducing or eliminating benzene from products where possible. However, the DECOS report and its recommendation fall in line with the trend toward lower and lower benzene exposure limits. It remains to be seen what effect this will have on industry – and benzene exposure litigation – in the United States.