Four decades ago, the U.S. government used rarely deployed emergency powers to reduce workers’ exposure to benzene, a chemical linked to a five-fold increased risk of potentially deadly leukemia.
After a landmark study in 1977 highlighted its health risks, employers and manufacturers were forced to limit the industrial compound in their workplaces. Yet just within the past few months, elevated levels of benzene have appeared in some hand sanitizers, and last week, an analysis by an independent testing lab revealed its presence in some sunscreens and after-sun skin soothers.
While the amounts found in skin products have been relatively small — far less toxic than the doses that resulted in blood cancers and regulatory action — they’re still spurring alarm from public health experts, especially as people are set to head outside for the warm summer months and children all over the country get slathered in sunscreen. More questions are being raised about how benzene was allowed into the common lotions, and how to keep it out.
“There’s no such thing as a safe level of exposure, and that’s especially true for children,” said Philip Landrigan, director of the Global Public Health Program and Global Pollution Observatory at Boston College who has studied toxic chemicals and human health for 40 years. “Benzene actually causes DNA mutations, it’s a potent carcinogen. Even a small dose can set in motion the chain of events that can lead to a cancer a few years later.”
‘Benzene Is Ubiquitous’
Valisure, an independent testing lab in New Haven, Connecticut, said last week that it found some widely used sunscreens and after-sun products contained up to 6 parts per million of benzene. The Food and Drug Administration’s standard for benzene in sunscreen is unclear, but it earlier set a temporary limit related to the pandemic of 2 parts per million for hand sanitizers.
The FDA didn’t say whether it was concerned about benzene levels in sunscreen but said it works with companies to recall products when appropriate. It’s up to manufacturers and distributors to ensure the quality of their products, said Jeremy Kahn, a spokesman for the agency.
“The FDA urges manufacturers to test their ingredients to ensure they meet specifications and are free from harmful contamination,” Kahn said.
Johnson & Johnson’s Neutrogena line and a CVS Health Corp. after-sun spray were among the products that were found by Valisure to have elevated levels of benzene. Both J&J and CVS said they are looking into Valisure’s findings.
“CVS Pharmacy’s store brands are designed to maximize quality and assure the products we offer are safe, work as intended, comply with regulations and satisfy customers,” Amy Thibault, a spokeswoman, said. CVS said its spray is made by an outside manufacturer that it didn’t name.
Every ingredient J&J uses must meet safety and quality requirements, and benzene is not an ingredient in any of J&J’s personal care products, Melissa Munoz, a spokeswoman, said.
Benzene is often used as an industrial solvent. Although hand sanitizer and sunscreen manufacturers may not be knowingly purchasing and using benzene, they could be using solvents contaminated with the carcinogen, said Daniel Teitelbaum, an adjunct professor of occupational and environmental health at the Colorado School of Public Health who’s an expert on benzene exposure.
Cigarette smoke and gasoline fumes are among the most common sources of benzene exposure. Studies in the last two decades have found a 2-to-4-times higher risk of leukemia in children who live in homes close to gas stations.
“Here’s the problem with benzene,” Teitelbaum said. “Benzene is ubiquitous.”
The earliest reports of benzene-linked blood disorders date back to 1897 in raincoat factories in Sweden, and cases of poisoning from the solvent persisted for decades. Workers on factory floors making rubber goods and shoes and in oil refineries face benzene exposure largely through inhalation.
There’s less known about other routes of absorption, but children’s skin is more permeable than adults’, Landrigan said, so they’re likely to soak up toxic chemicals more easily. The sunscreen analysis found many products didn’t contain benzene, and people should still protect themselves from ultraviolet rays. But experts warn against any excessive exposure to the chemical, which is already a fairly common hazard.
“It all adds up,” said Peter Infante, whose 1977 study found increased leukemia deaths among employees at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plants making Pliofilm, a plastic used to wrap everything from food to guns. That led to the emergency restriction on workplace levels of the chemical in the air.
“A little bit here, a little bit there,” Infante said. “Why have that body burden?”
Blood cancers like leukemia aren’t the only risk; benzene is also associated with a disorder called aplastic anemia that can cause uncontrolled bleeding. The World Health Organization’s cancer research arm puts the chemical in its highest-risk category, along with materials such as asbestos.
The Environmental Protection Agency has a limit of 0.005 parts per million of benzene in drinking water. After a Supreme Court battle with the petroleum industry over lowering benzene levels in workplace air, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration officially reduced its limit to 1 part per million from 10 parts per million in 1987. Even the lower boundary is associated with a lifetime risk of 10 extra leukemia deaths per 1,000 workers, according to Infante.
Benzene is used to make some types of alcohol, a common ingredient in hand sanitizers, but isn’t supposed to be in a final product in large amounts. In the early months of the pandemic when store shelves emptied of cleaning products, the FDA, which regulates sanitizers and sun-care products, made an allowance for benzene in hand sanitizers to help fill supply gaps.
But in March, Valisure revealed that some hand sanitizers entering the market on the pandemic’s heels contained up to eight times the 2 parts per million limit the FDA set. Scentsational Soaps & Candles Inc. recalled some of its products found to contain benzene, among other toxins, including some hand sanitizers distributed at Ulta Beauty Inc., TJ Maxx and Marshalls stores.
The findings of benzene in sunscreen followed this week. Valisure has asked the FDA to clarify appropriate standards for the hand cleansers and sun products, and to recall all those the company identified with elevated levels. Experts worry that more revelations may come.
“What about the other things that we’re applying: moisturizers and skin creams and makeup?” said Christopher Bunick, an associate professor of dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine. “Is the manufacture of those products that different than sunscreens? Why isn’t there more oversight?”
Valisure plans to investigate other consumer health-care products, given its most recent analyses show “there certainly appear to be serious and pervasive quality issues,” Chief Executive Officer David Light said.
Over the last few years, Valisure found high levels of a carcinogen called NDMA in generic and name-brand versions of the stomach drug Zantac as well as a popular diabetes treatment, metformin. The FDA asked for all Zantac and its generics, called ranitidine, to be pulled from the market, and some drugmakers recalled metformin products.
Now manufacturers and regulators need to determine where the benzene in sanitizers and sunscreens comes from, and the NDMA found in drugs may offer some clues. Drugmakers may have used cheap solvents capable of forming NDMA that weren’t properly removed during the drug production process. Something similar may be occurring with benzene, Teitelbaum said.
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