Of Benzene and the Coronavirus 3/2/20

Reflections by Richard Bleil

Author’s Note: Since the writing of this article (several days before publishing), the Coronavirus continues to spread in the US and we have had our first related death. The point of this post is not to downplay the danger of this virus or to poke fun of it, but rather to address the panic and sensationalism surround it.

February 15, 1985, and the US Steel Corporation Plant near Pittsburg detects a three hundred mile stretch of Benzene contaminating the Ohio River. News outlets in Cincinnati report that the EPA is estimating that this toxic contaminant will reach the city in three days, and we’d better be prepared for the worst. Yup, there will be mass hysteria, Democrats will control the Senate, Satanists will burst forth and we’d better be in a church because WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!

Well, let’s be fair. It’s a solvent, potential carcinogen (which is the part the news outlets focused on), could cause irritation in contact with the skin or eyes (like most any solvent), it’s flammable…it’s a solvent. Like paint thinner, you wouldn’t want to snort it, bathe in it, or live in a house with open vats of it, but it’s also the solvent that organic chemists used to use to wash off their hands at the end of the day.

I was a senior at the University of Cincinnati when this happened, about to graduate with my bachelor’s degree in chemistry. I had finished all of the required organic chemistry courses and labs, and was very familiar with this friendly little solvent, so I watched the news with fascination, especially the fear mongering.

See, benzene doesn’t dissolve in water. It floats on top of the water and is highly volatile, so it evaporates readily. Three days of floating down the River? If any of it reached Cincinnati, it wouldn’t be nearly as much as the original spill since most would evaporate by then, but, of course, the news never reported that. Instead, they recognized that benzene is a “chemical” (although everything is actually a chemical or mixture of chemicals, including the water the benzene was floating on and the air into which it was evaporating), so as soon as they heard, they immediately reported the spill. Every day the Cincinnati news would track the benzene spill, with regular updates of how much closer it is today than it was yesterday and WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE in two more days, then one, then…

The anatomy of the news story had another dimension as well. See, as soon as they learned of the spill (and had reported it), then they sought more information on this deadly deadly baby stealing goat sacrificing chemical. They sought information on it and discovered that it might irritate skin, nothing to frighten people there, and prolonged exposure could cause respiratory tract irritation, okay that’s fine but not enough, and a potential carcinogen.

Potential. Even today it’s listed as a “potential” carcinogen.


Of course, it came and went peacefully, amid the fear mongering, with no deaths, not even any reported eye irritation. One day it was at our doorstep, the next it was not even mentioned. The fear mongering had a lasting effect, though, as benzene is today banned from chemistry labs despite the fact that every chemist knows that it’s not really a great hazard.

I mention this because as I watch the news evolve of the Coronavirus, it strikes me as very similar. Please don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that the Coronavirus isn’t potentially deadly, nor am I suggesting that news of it should be repressed. But even today a friend of mine posted a meme on her social media page that read something along the lines of having survived the dreaded bird flu, SARS, and several others she’s not so concerned about the Coronavirus. Another friend posted a meme that simply read, “Don’t Panic and Wash Your Hands”. Let’s be fair; historically there have been outbreaks that wiped out significant portions of human populations, so yes, we do need to be aware of it. It’s spreading quickly, and people are dying from it. But we don’t know how deadly it really is just yet, so there is cause for awareness (and handwashing), but not panic. The President had his normal knee-jerk reaction of closing borders, and even criticized allowing infected American citizens to return, but of course that won’t stop as cases have already been confirmed in the US. The stock markets have responded by losing enough value to take it back at least to 2018. The politicians are jumping all over it to criticize the other party as if “they” are somehow responsible for the outbreak in the first place.

Seriously, wash your hands. But don’t panic. My mother once told me that worry never helps anyway, and it doesn’t. Live your life and wash your hands. And in case I forgot to say it early…WASH YOUR HANDS!

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