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Expert meeting on benzene

Representatives of industry stakeholders and various research institutions met in Stavanger last week for an expert meeting at the Petroleum Safety Authority Norway (PSA) on the health risks associated with exposure to benzene in the petroleum industry.

Benzene occurs in crude oil in various quantities and is a key raw material in the chemical industry.

Workers may be exposed when benzene is released to the air or comes into contact with the skin.

Benzene is classified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). 

"There are a number of factors associated with benzene exposure in the petroleum industry that suggest this subject should be given more attention", says the PSA's Chief Engineer, Katri Maria Suuronen.

She indicates that a number of studies have found overrepresentation of specific leukaemias that may be linked to benzene exposure. There are indications that this occurs at exposure levels lower than the current threshold limit values.

In its audit activities, the PSA has observed a lack of knowledge concerning benzene exposure and risk. Protection against benzene exposure is largely provided for through the use of personal protective equipment, which is considered to be a weak barrier.

"The purpose of the meeting was to achieve an overview of the latest knowledge and establish the status of what we know about the risk scenario associated with benzene exposure in the petroleum industry", says Suuronen.

This was the basis of a discussion on the need for further risk reduction and follow-up on the part of the industry. The need for specific R&D activities was also raised. The meeting of experts from leading research institutions with the industry's own experts and the viewing of industry practice in relation to knowledge of exposure and health effects provide a sound basis for progress at the OHAS level.

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"There was broad agreement among the participants that we lack knowledge about benzene exposure in the petroleum industry. The companies were encouraged to cooperate on sharing more information and using it to control exposure. Good data on exposure is also important for reducing uncertainty in research results. There was also agreement on the need to re-evaluate and potentially update the threshold limit values for benzene", says Suuronen.

"The industry's ability to manage risks associated with benzene exposure is something that we in the PSA will be monitoring in our future audit activities."