What is Benzene? Why is it Dangerous to Firefighters?

09.30.2019 Written by: Henningson & Snoxell, Ltd.

Firefighters in smoke

Benzene is a chemical compound that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (“IARC”) has identified to be carcinogenic to humans. The IARC is an intergovernmental agency that is part of the World Health Organization under the United Nations. The IARC conducts, complies, and publishes research into the causes of cancer around the world. In one of its published Monographs, the IARC evaluated the risk that benzene may cause to humans and concluded that benzene is carcinogenic or causes cancer.


How is Benzene Used?

Benzene is typically used to make other chemicals. Benzene is processed into ethylbenzene, which is used to form styrene, which is used to make polymers and plastics. Benzene is also used to make rubbers, lubricants, dyes, detergents, pesticides, and is used in the manufacturing of nylon fibers. Benzene is also present in gasoline, particularly engine exhaust.

Firefighters are occupationally exposed to benzene throughout their careers in a variety of ways, including engine exhaust. Firefighters may work long hours at the scene of a fire, working on and near engines and fire trucks that are pumping out engine exhaust. A firefighter standing next to a fire truck or an engine, is not thinking about wearing his or her mask or other personal protective equipment because he or she thinks they are out of the danger zone, when in fact the truck and engine exhaust is exposing them to a cancer-causing agent. Furthermore, firefighters work 24-hour shifts, wherein they live and sleep at the station. The stations house the engines and trucks and are notoriously poorly ventilated. These trucks may idle, and my clients have stories of black stain marks on the walls of the stations from the truck and engine exhaust. Firefighters are sleeping above these trucks.

The IRAC concluded that “all types of fires release toxic and carcinogenic substances, including benzene, 1,3-butadine, and formaldehyde.”

The IARC further noted that “with the increasing use of polymers in building construction and furnishings, there is concern that the burning of these new materials might release large quantities of other highly toxic substances.”

When combustion or the process of burning something occurs, the materials are not completely burned or broken down. Incomplete combustion and the burning of organic and synthetic materials expose firefighters to benzene.

Occupational exposures, such as those that occur during firefighting, typically occurs during inhalation. However, benzene also penetrates the skin. Exposure through skin contact may vary according to the task being performed, the duration of exposures, and the composition of the chemical containing benzene or a by-product.

The IARC determined that benzene is linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma, as well as other leukemias and lymphomas. Firefighters have a 1.51 times greater risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma than the general public, 1.53 times greater risk of developing multiple myeloma, and 1.13 times greater risk of developing leukemia.


Preventing this type of dangerous exposures is still being studied and firefighters are encouraged to strictly adhere to personal protective equipment policies. However, PPE is not perfect, and studies show that these carcinogens may still enter and be adopted into the body through skin, even with PPE, particularly at the neck or hood site. Turnout gear affords some protection to firefighters, but firefighters still touch their gear and are subject to “off gassing” from their PPE.


If you are a firefighter diagnosed with cancer and you believe that your work as a firefighter caused your case contact Attorney Mary Beth Boyce at 763-560-5700 at Henningson & Snoxell, Ltd. for a free, no obligation consultation to evaluate your potential workers’ compensation and/or PERA duty disability case. Mary Beth Boyce has tried and handled many cases involving firefighters developing cancer and has spent many hours studying these issues that affect our community’s firefighters.


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