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Living Near Industrial Plants Raises Risk of Lymphoma Cancer

benzene and cancer, non-hodgkin lymphoma

Benzene is a colorless, flammable liquid which evaporates quickly when exposed to air. It can be formed naturally, such as from volcanoes or due to forest fires, but most of our exposure to the benzene comes through our use of chemicals. Benzene is known to cause cancer, based on evidence from studies of both humans and animals.

Most studies that link benzene to cancer have focused on direct exposure to the chemical –such as through cigarette smoking (accounting for about half of the US national exposure) and workplace exposure. Researchers with Emory University in Atlanta, however, have found that even indirect exposure from living near an industrial plant can raise the risk of a particular type of blood cancer known as Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Dr. Christopher Flowers and Catherine Bulka MPH used publicly available data from the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Census Bureau to analyze geographic patterns of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma cases in the state of Georgia between 1999 and 2008. The investigators found that the metro-Atlanta Region, Augusta, and Savannah had the highest incidences of the cancer. These locations contained facilities such as petroleum refineries and manufacturing plants that release benzene into the surrounding air or water.

For every mile the average distance to benzene release sites increased, there was a 0.31 percent decrease in the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

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"Our study is the first to examine the relationship between passive benzene exposure and the incidence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma at the state population level," said Bulka. "Our findings are limited without similar studies to corroborate our results, but we hope that our research will inform readers of the potential risks of living near facilities that release carcinogens into the air, groundwater, or soil," she added.

Lymphoma cancers begin in cells called lymphocytes, which are part of the body’s immune system. Lymphocytes are found in lymph nodes, the spleen, and bone marrow. There are two types of lymphoma – Hodgkin lymphoma and Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma – each behaving, spreading and responding differently to treatment.

The causes of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma are unknown, but risk is increased for those exposed to chemicals such as pesticides, fertilizers, or organic solvents for long periods of time. Other risk factors include family history (although no hereditary pattern has been well established), patients with auto-immune diseases, organ transplant recipients, and those infected with certain viruses.

You can learned about the levels of toxic chemicals in your community by visiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory Program website at www2.epa.gov.

Journal Reference:
Catherine Bulka, Christopher R. Flowers, et al. “Residence proximity to benzene release sites is associated with increased incidence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.” CANCER; Published Online: July 29, 2013 (DOI: 10.1002/cncr.28083).

Additional Resources:
American Cancer Society
Lymphoma Research Foundation