Objectives: To evaluate the health effects of benzene exposure among smoking subjects from a prolonged flaring inci- dent that occurred at the British Petroleum (BP) refinery in Texas City, USA. Material and Methods: The study includ- ed smoking subjects who had been exposed and unexposed to the benzene release. Using medical charts, clinical data including white blood cell (WBC) counts, platelet counts, hemoglobin, hematocrit, blood urea nitrogen (BUN), creati- nine, alkaline phosphatase (ALP), aspartate aminotransferase (AST), and alanine aminotransferase (ALT) in the case of smoking subjects exposed to benzene was reviewed and analyzed. Results: A total of 791 tobacco smoking subjects (benzene-exposed: N = 733, unexposed: N = 58) were included. Benzene-exposed subjects had significantly higher lev- els of WBC (×103/μl) counts (8±2.1 vs. 7.5±1.6, p = 0.003) and platelet (×103/μl) counts (263.7±69.7 vs. 222.9±44.3, p = 0.000) as compared with the unexposed subjects. The mean hemoglobin, hematocrit, BUN, and creatinine levels did not differ significantly between the benzene-exposed and -unexposed smoking subjects. Serum levels of ALP (IU/l) was significantly elevated in the benzene-exposed subjects compared with the unexposed subjects (84.5±16.9 vs. 73.8±15.9, p = 0.002). Similarly, benzene-exposed subjects had significantly higher levels of AST and ALT as compared with those unexposed subjects. Conclusions: Despite a smoking history, residents exposed to benzene from the prolonged BP flaring incident experienced significant alterations in hematological and hepatic functions indicating their vulnerability to the risk of developing hepatic or blood related disorders. Int J Occup Med Environ Health 2017;30(6):849–860
Benzene, a chief constituent of crude oil and gasoline, is an important volatile organic chemical produced at high levels in both the petroleum and manufacturing industries. Benzene is used as the primary starting material to pro- duce a variety of commercial products including detergents, drugs, dyes, synthetic fibers, resins, pesticides, and plastics. Thus, petroleum and chemical manufacturing industries are the major sources for human exposure to benzene.
Benzene exposure is associated with multiple adverse health effects in both adults and children. Therefore, ben- zene poisoning is of particular concern because current evidence suggests that it may result in significant toxicity. Benzene exposure may affect the bone marrow leading to anemia and the development of cancer. Exposure to ben- zene may cause leukemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma, aplastic anemia, and other solid cancers [2–6].
In addition, benzene exposure is associated with a wide range of non-cancerous but adverse effects including al- terations in pulmonary, central nervous system, hemato- logical, hepatic, and renal functions [7–11]. Adverse respi- ratory effects of benzene include pulmonary edema, acute granular tracheitis, laryngitis, bronchitis, fibrosis, and mas- sive hemorrhaging.
Although earlier studies have been reported regarding the adverse health effects of benzene exposure for hu- mans [12,13], the pathology of benzene-induced toxicity is not completely known. Multiple possible mechanisms have been postulated about the toxicity of benzene exposure. It is believed that the toxic effects of benzene may arise from its metabolism, which proceeds along several lines leading to the generation of several benzene metabolites such as benzoquinone, hydroquinone, muconaldehydes, catechol, and phenol .
In addition, benzene exposure is associated with DNA damage, oxidative stress, disruption of the cell cycle, and programmed cell death leading to the development of adverse health effects [15–17]. Moreover, benzene may interfere with innate, humoral and cellular immu- nity and disrupts the immune function contributing to its toxicity [18,19].
A flaring disaster that occurred at a British Petroleum (BP) refinery plant resulted in a huge amount of toxic chemical re- lease into the skies of Texas City, USA [20,21]. Consequently, over 500 000 lb of toxic chemicals, including over 17 000 lb of benzene were released threatening the health of the resi- dents living in the surrounding communities of the BP refin-
Benzene is also an intrinsic component of tobacco. Tobacco smokers have higher blood and urine levels of benzene than nonsmokers . Benzene is a highly volatile organic com- pound and may contaminate the surrounding environment rapidly. Natural processes such as volcanoes and forest fires and human activities related to chemical manufacturing in- dustries play a critical role in contaminating the environ- ment. Therefore, communities located near these sources are at a higher risk of being exposed to benzene.
ery facility [20–22]. The local County District Clerk’s Office estimated that over 50 000 people were presumed to be af- fected as a result of the BP refinery flaring incident.
To assess the potential health consequences of this ambi- ent benzene exposure that resulted from the BP flaring incident, a series of studies are being conducted examin- ing the hematological and hepatic functions in affected subjects. The initial findings of these studies have revealed that benzene exposure has significantly altered the hema- tological and hepatic indices in the case of the exposed sub- jects as compared with the unexposed subjects [23–27].
In addition, those persons exposed to benzene had a range of illness symptoms and an altered profile of urinary phenol indicating their vulnerability to increased health complica- tions . Since tobacco and cigarette smoke is also a well- known source of benzene exposure , tobacco smoking is considered to be a potential confounder in determining the health effects of benzene. Therefore, in this study, we have included only tobacco smoking subjects who had been exposed to benzene and assessed their hematological and hepatic functions and compared them with smoking sub- jects who had not been exposed to benzene.
An Institutional Review Board reviewed the protocol and approved this retrospective study. The subjects’ selection and the procedures used for the clinical and laboratory evaluations had been reported previously in detail [23–28]. Briefly, between June 2010 and October 2012 subjects un- derwent clinical as well as laboratory evaluations and their data is included in the study. Specifically, subjects exposed to benzene from residential areas in and surrounding Texas City, USA, were selected from the community (Figure 1). In particular, subjects included in this study were exposed to benzene for a prolonged period for up to 40 days from the BP refinery flaring disaster that had occurred on April 6, 2010 and lasted through May 16, 2010. Control
Reprinted and modified with permission from American Journal of Disaster Medicine, Vol. 8, No. 3: 169–179 .
Fig. 1. Map showing the location of the disaster of BP refinery facility in the northern parts of the Texas City, USA
subjects who were unexposed to benzene were drawn from primary care clinics located approximately 30–50 miles away from the BP refinery plant [23–28]. Specifically, un- exposed subjects to benzene were selected randomly by the primary care physician following their visit to the clinic for a routine wellness checkup.
Only subjects in either exposed or unexposed to benzene
groups with a smoking history or who were smoking at that
time were eligible for inclusion in this study. Using their medical records, demographic and clinical laboratory data was collected and analyzed. The ethical principles of the Declaration of Helsinki were followed throughout this study. To comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), confidentiality of infor- mation was secured by utilizing text encryption, password protection and limited personnel involvement.
Clinical data was collected from the medical records of the benzene-exposed and -unexposed smoking sub- jects and subjected to statistical analysis. Hematologi- cal function was assessed by evaluating white blood cell (WBC) counts, platelet counts, hemoglobin, hema- tocrit, and blood urea nitrogen (BUN). Alkaline phos- phatase (ALP), aspartate amino transferase (AST), and alanine amino transferase (ALT) levels were assessed as the measure of hepatic function. Renal function was evaluated by measuring serum creatinine. An outside ac- credited laboratory facility (LabCorp, Laboratory Cor- poration of America, Houston, USA) was used for clini- cal laboratory tests for both the benzene-exposed and
The assessment of the data on demographics and clini- cal parameters included means and standard devia- tions for each group. Variables included were age, gen- der, WBC, platelets, hemoglobin, hematocrit, creati- nine, BUN, ALP, AST, and ALT. Simple Student’s t-test was used for comparing the differences between the ben- zene-exposed and -unexposed groups. The significance level was predetermined at α level of 0.05.
This study included a total of 791 tobacco smoking sub- jects. Out of the 791 smoking subjects, 58 were unexposed and 733 were exposed to benzene. The demographics of the subjects are shown in the Table 1. The mean age of the unexposed and benzene-exposed subjects was 41 years old and 42.1 years old, respectively. Out of the 58 unex- posed subjects, 37 (64%) were male and 21 (36%) were female. There were 465 (63%) male and 268 (37%) female subjects in the benzene-exposed group. The median time from the time of disaster till the time of the laboratory test- ing for the exposed group was 145 (range: 77–439) days.
The differences in hematologic and hepatic markers be- tween the unexposed and exposed tobacco smoking subjects to benzene were presented in the Table 2. The mean WBC counts (×103/μl) were significantly higher in the benzene- exposed subjects as compared with those of the unexposed subjects (8±2.1 vs. 7.5±1.6, p = 0.003). Similarly, the mean platelet counts (×103/μl) in the benzene-exposed group were significantly elevated as compared with the unexposed group (263.7±69.7 vs. 222.9±44.3, p = 0.000). The mean hemoglobin (g/dl), hematocrit (%), BUN (mg/dl), and cre- atinine (mg/dl) levels did not differ significantly between the benzene-exposed and unexposed subjects.
The mean serum ALP (IU/l) levels were found to be in- creased for subjects exposed to benzene as compared with the unexposed subjects (84.5±16.9 vs. 73.8±15.9, p = 0.002). Similarly, the mean serum AST (IU/l) levels were significant- ly higher in the benzene-exposed subjects as compared with the unexposed subjects (26.8±6.2 vs. 21.6±5.1, p = 0.044). The mean serum ALT (IU/l) levels were increased signifi- cantly in the benzene-exposed group as compared with the unexposed group (30.1±12.2 vs. 24.4±9.2, p = 0.015).
The results presented in the Table 3 represent the differ- ences in hematologic and hepatic markers between the ben- zene-exposed and -unexposed smoking subjects according to their gender. The mean WBC counts (×103/μl) were statistically similar between the benzene-exposed and un- exposed male subjects (8±2.3 vs. 7.8±1.5, p = 0.35). However, the mean WBC counts (×103/μl) were sig- nificantly higher for female subjects who were exposed to benzene as compared with those unexposed female subjects (8±2.2 vs. 7.2±1.2, p = 0.001). The mean plate- let counts (×103/μl) for male (247.4±45.7 vs. 217±34.4, p = 0.0036) and female (286.4±73.6 vs. 233.8±58.3,
p = 0.0008) subjects exposed to benzene were significantly elevated as compared with the unexposed group. Similarly, the mean serum ALP levels (IU/l) were significantly el- evated for male (81.4±23.7 vs. 71.9±17.7, p = 0.008) and female (83.5±16.7 vs. 72.7±15.9, p = 0.0287) subjects in
the benzene-exposed group as compared with the unex- posed group. Although benzene-exposed male subjects had significantly higher mean serum AST levels (IU/l) as compared with unexposed male subjects (33.3±6.2 vs. 21.9±5.5, p = 0.0158), no significant differences were observed between benzene-exposed and unexposed fe- male subjects (21.1±5.2 vs. 18.6±4.9, p = 0.129). Similarly, benzene-exposed male subjects had significantly higher mean serum ALT levels (IU/l) as compared with unexposed male subjects (37±7.8 vs. 27.8±4.6, p = 0.023), no signifi- cant differences were observed between benzene-exposed
and -unexposed female subjects (23.4±7.9 vs. 18.6±6, p = 0.133). The mean hemoglobin (g/dl), hematocrit (%), BUN (mg/dl), and creatinine (mg/dl) levels did not differ significantly in the male or female subjects between the benzene-exposed and -unexposed groups.
To assess if age had any significant impact on the health effects of benzene exposure among smoking subjects, the study participants were categorized into < 40 years and ≥ 40 years of age groups and the clinical findings were compared between the unexposed and benzene- exposed groups. The findings in the Table 4 show the
differences in hematologic and hepatic markers between the exposed and unexposed smoking subjects among the 2 age groups.
Regardless of their age, benzene-exposed smoking sub- jects had significantly higher levels of the mean WBC counts and platelet counts as compared with their matched unexposed age-groups. Conversely, the mean hemoglobin, hematocrit, and BUN levels remained sta- tistically similar between the benzene-exposed and un- exposed subjects regardless of the age-group. Compared with those unexposed subjects, benzene-exposed subjects had significantly higher levels of serum creatinine in both age groups. Similarly, significantly higher levels of hepatic enzymes (ALP, AST and ALT) were observed in the ben- zene-exposed subjects as compared with those unexposed subjects, regardless of age (Table 4).
Benzene is a volatile organic solvent and is known as one of the predominant toxic air pollutants in the environ- ment. Benzene has long been known as a carcinogen of human blood components. In addition, benzene exposure may cause non-carcinogenic effects including hematolog- ic, hepatic, neurologic, renal, and immunologic dysfunc- tions. However, the precise mechanism of the toxic effects of the benzene exposure is not fully understood. Despite the growing knowledge regarding the detrimental effects of benzene exposure, there have been no systematic in- vestigations assessing its adverse health effects that may help in early detection of pathological alterations caused by benzene exposure.
Since tobacco smoking has a higher body burden of ben- zene , it is important to determine the health conse- quences of benzene exposure resulting from the pro- longed BP’s flaring incident among smoking residents. Therefore, we conducted this study assessing the altera- tions in the hematological and hepatic functions among smoking subjects following their exposure to benzene from
The elevated levels of these enzymes found in this study are consistent with the other published studies where in- creased liver enzymes have been reported for adult sub- jects who have been exposed to benzene or petroleum products and organic solvents [34–38]. Since benzene ex- posure causes dysfunction of hepatic tissues, it may lead to the liberation of increased levels of hepatic enzymes into the circulation. Alternatively, benzene exposure may cause hepatocellular injury resulting in the activation of liver cells leading to the overproduction of hepatic en- zymes. Additional studies, however, are needed to evalu- ate the precise mechanisms of benzene induced hepatic toxicity among smoking subjects.
To understand the health consequences of the benzene ex- posure among smoking subjects, we further assessed and compared the hematological and hepatic outcomes by their gender as well as by their age (< 40 years old and ≥ 40 years old). The findings indicate that benzene-exposed smoking subjects had significantly altered hematological and hepatic functions as compared with the unexposed nonsmoking subjects regardless of their gender or age.
Several limitations were taken into consideration when in- terpreting our study findings. First this study has utilized a cross-sectional design for the evaluation; therefore, the findings should be interpreted with caution. Generally, a cross-sectional study design only allows for the hypoth- esis for further investigation, and not causality to be inves- tigated. It is difficult to draw a causality using such a study design because the clinical outcomes were measured at one point in time after an event. Thus, the causality may only be an assumption.
Another important limitation of this study has been the lack of baseline data of the study subjects prior to their benzene exposure for a comparison. Since it is a retro- spective study, the procedures used for evaluation have not followed a predefined protocol. Although, prospec- tive randomized studies are necessary to validate current findings, planning such randomized studies to assess the
the BP’s prolonged flaring incident . More specifically, in this study, we evaluated and compared the hematologi- cal and hepatic functions among benzene-exposed smok- ing subjects vs. unexposed smoking subjects. To the best of our knowledge this is the first study that has assessed the changes in the hematological and hepatic functions associated with benzene exposure resulting from the BP’s prolonged flaring incident among smoking residents.
The findings of this study indicate that benzene exposure resulted in significant alterations in the hematological and hepatic functions among smoking subjects. More specifi- cally, benzene-exposed smoking subjects had significant increase in their mean WBC and platelets counts as com- pared with those unexposed smoking subjects. Hemo- globin and hematocrit levels remained similar between the 2 groups. Similarly, no changes were observed in the mean levels of BUN and creatinine between the exposed and unexposed groups. Although several earlier studies had assessed the adverse health effects of benzene expo- sure [30–32], those study populations had been mixed with both smoking and nonsmoking subjects.
Recently, we have reported significant alterations in the hematological and hepatic profiles among nonsmok- ing residents following their exposure to benzene due to the BP’s flaring incident . Together, these studies fur- ther indicate that subjects exposed to benzene experience significant alterations in their hematological and hepatic functions regardless of their smoking status or history.
It is well established that assessment of enzymes such as ALP, AST and ALT in the serum routinely measured for liver functions evaluation . Since benzene expo- sure is known to affect hepatic functions, in this study we have assessed the changes in ALP, AST, and ALT levels in the serum of benzene-exposed smoking subjects and com- pared them with those of unexposed smoking subjects. Our findings show that the serum levels of ALP, AST, and ALT increased significantly in the benzene-exposed subjects as compared with those unexposed subjects.
adverse health effects from a disaster similar to the BP in-
cident is not practicable.
Regardless of this study’s limitations, the findings suggest that smoking subjects exposed to benzene have potential health risks including alterations in hematological, hepatic and other organ functions. Several previously published studies had shown that benzene exposure increased the risk of carcinogenesis including hematological and lung cancers. Yin et al.  reported an increased risk of leukemia, lym- phoma and lung cancers among benzene-exposed workers as compared to unexposed workers in China. Therefore, peri- odic checkups and routine blood tests are necessary to detect any long-term toxic effects, particularly, monitoring the risk of developing secondary malignancies for the benzene-ex- posed subjects. Periodic health checkups include pulmonary, cardiac, neurologic, and other organ function tests should be performed to monitor the long-term health consequences for benzene-exposed subjects regardless of their gender, age, and smoking status. Thus, longitudinal and mechanistic stud- ies are required to explore the importance and nature of the human health effects of benzene exposure.
In summary, the results of this study suggest that regard- less of subjects’ smoking history, benzene exposure from the BP refinery flaring incident has an increased risk of altering both the hematological and hepatic functions for those residents living in the affected area. Among the he- matological indices, WBC counts and platelet counts have been found to be increased in the benzene-exposed sub- jects as compared with the unexposed subjects.
Similarly, the serum levels of hepatic enzymes such as ALP, AST, and ALT were increased significantly in the case of the benzene-exposed subjects indicating hepatic injury in this population. However, further studies are needed to understand the other potential detrimental long-term hu- man health effects of the benzene exposure from the flar- ing incident at the BP refinery facility in Texas City, USA.