"In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten; then, he who continues the attack wins"

Burn Pits: The "Agent Orange" of the Iraq War


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What is "Benzene"

- Benzene is a bi-product of "carbon-rich" materials that do not completely combust, used in products such as JP-4, JP-8 fuels and paint thinners.

- Benzene is colorless gas and a colorless liquid, however it has a sweet-smelling odor, described as "sweet".

- The benzene structure contains (6) carbons and (6) hydrogens that form into a ring that is hard to penetrate causing the incomplete combustion.

- If Benzene mixes with oxidizers, perchlorates, Nitric acids or Fluorides, it will react and explode.

Where is "Benzene" found?

  • JP-4, JP-5, JP-8 Fuels
  • Diesel Fuels
  • Leaded Gasoline
  • Paints
  • Solvents
  • Paint thinners
  • Rubbers
  • Vehicle Emissions
  • Plastics
  • Pesticides
  • Styrofoams

What does "Benzene" do to the body?

- Benzene directly affects the Hematological, Immunological and Neurological systems (similar to affects of Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans).

- The most significant damage is to the hematological system (blood), related to leukemia's and damage to the marrow that is linked to a reduction in red blood cells, often causing anemia (low Iron blood levels).

- Anemia being an early-onset indication something is wrong; symptoms include:

  • Dizziness, fatigue, lightheaded
  • Weakness
  • Fast heartbeat and/or palpitations
  • Brittle, dull nails
  • Headaches
  • Pallor/Paleness
  • Shortness of breath

- Benzene metabolizes (breaks down into smaller chemical compounds) in the LIVER, and the metabolites are then excreted (removed from body) through the KIDNEYS. Toxicity related to the generation of free-oxygen radicals via Cytochrome-P450; and the water-soluble metabolites which are formed in the liver are responsible for the toxic hematopoetic effects.

How to TREAT a Benzene Exposure?

  1. Positive Pressure, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)
  2. Flush skin for 2-3 minutes with plain water
  3. Wash skin with mild soap
  4. If ingested, DO NOT induce vomiting, give ACTIVATED CHARCOAL
  5. Consider giving benzodiazepines for potential seizure activity
  6. Monitor for cardiac arrhythmias, hypotension, respiratory depression, hypoxia
  7. Infuse normal saline or Lactated Ringers (Bolus 1000mL/hr IV) - if hypotensive, <80mmHg give Lactated Ringers 150-200mL/hr.

* Due to cardiac arrhythmias, aerosolized bronchiodilators may increase and worsen affects and stress myocardium and should therefore be avoided*

- Exposures to benzene decreases alveolar ventilation, cardiac output and blood flow to organs and organ volumes, therefore sympathomimetics and epinephrine should be avoided.

Labs and Tests:

  • CBC, Fluid & Electrolytes, Glucose
  • If Exposure substaintial: ECG, Urine, BUN/Creatinine, LFT's, ABG's
  • Chest radiography
  • SpO2%
  • Biological Index for Benzene = 25 PhAC/g
  • Cystine, Creatinine, Muconic Acid are ALL sensitive to Benzene

What if  Benzene is Inhaled?

- If Benzene is inhaled it produces numerous physical symptoms almost seconds after the exposure and may last various amounts of time if the exposure was extreme or long-term.

- Inhaled symptoms include (short-term/acute):

  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Confusion
  • Tremors
  • Possible loss of consciousness
  • Possible death if exposed to high-levels long term

- As mentioned, Benzene has a distinct odor, a sweet-smelling odor, however this odor is only noticed during "acute" or short-term exposures. The smell begins to fade as repeated exposures occur due to your "olfactory (nasal)" sensory nerves begin to fatigue and tire-out. This is dangerous because a veteran may believe they are not being exposed because the smell is "gone" whereas it may have simply faded related to nasal fatigue.

- Acute respiratory (short-term breathing) exposures have similar effects on the central nervous system as anesthetic gas ("laughing gas")... first inhaled benzene induces excitation, then depression shortly after. If exposures continue, death occurs (within 5-minutes if exposure is over 5,000-ppm).

- OSHA Standards state "Permissible Exposure Limits to Benzene over 8-hours is 1-ppm" and "Short-term Exposure Limits to 15-minutes is 5-ppm"

What are the Long-Term Affects of Benzene?

- Acute respiratory exposure to Benzene mist may irritate the mucus membranes (20,000-ppm for 5-minutes) and can cause accumulation of fluid in the lungs and respiratory arrest may occur. Pulmonary aspiration (liquid form) of toxic liquid benzene may cause severe inflammation of the lungs.

- Ingested benzene can have serious side-effects on the GI system, causing nausea, vomiting and diarrhea - as little as 15mL can cause death, however in the average male adult the average lethal dose is 100mL.

- An example of how one could "ingest" benzene is if you are around burn pits that use diesel fuel or JP fuels to burn items and the fumes fall onto you/water bottles/eating utensils/cigarettes and ingested via orally - called "Secondary exposures".

  • Benzene is a heavy vapor in air, it attracts other benzene molecules and can accumulate in the air, it will float on water because it is less dense.
  • Benzene can also be passed via skin-contact, for example if vapors land on uniforms and can seep into skin (poorly, but can occur).

- Recovery takes approximately 1-4 weeks, symptoms may include:

  • Impaired gait/mobility
  • Nervousness
  • Breathlessness/trouble breathing
  • Cardiac distress (may last for months)
  • Yellow-tinged skin

- Delayed medical conditions from benzene exposures includes (but is not limited to):

  • Acute Tubular Necrosis (ATN)
  • Encephalopathy
  • Cardiac Dysrrhythmias
  • Pneumonia
  • Pulmonary Edema

What are the Chronic (long-lasting) Affects of Benzene Exposures?

- Chronic Exposures usually occur over 200-ppm repeating.

- Long term medical conditions include neurological and hematological affects (thromobocytopenia, aplastic anemia, acute myleogenous leukemia and pancytopenia).