Monday, June 20, 2005

Benzene exposure: Tobacco smoke represents 70% of the total

Interview with Environmental Health Chief - F Oliva reports

It is estimated that 70% of the total exposure to benzene during a person’s lifetime, will be due to tobacco smoke, Chief Environmental Health Officer Pepin Delgado has declared in an interview with the Chronicle.

Following on from the controversy generated over the issue of highly toxic benzene emissions by industries in the Campo and the media impact of the recent scientific study by Spanish experts of the CSIC (Spanish council for scientific research - Centro Superior Investigaciones Cientificas), Mr Delgado said Gibraltar applied EU directives for the protection of human health. In the case of benzene these set out limit-values which stand at five µg/m3 (micrograms) averaged over a calendar year.

At present there is also a margin of tolerance of an additional 5µg/m3 which the EU will be phasing out at the rate of one microgram a year over the next five years until 2010. As regards the EU’s stated policy objective of zero benzene emissions, Mr Delgado is less optimistic arguing that to demand this as from now and without an alternative, would lead to the disappearance of “life as we know it today.” He said:

“A reduction in emissions in stages, affording the opportunity for less polluting technologies to be put in place, would appear the more logical, less impacting way of balancing risk with our present way of life.”

Meanwhile a detailed study of the benzene emissions recorded hourly at the Rosia Road air monitoring station between May 20th and June 13th, shows a maximum reading of 13.78 micrograms per cubic metre of air at 1am on May 30th. This had dropped to 0.69 micrograms within the hour rising to 5.27m during the day and falling back to 0.64m by the end of the day. The second highest reading for the period in question, 10.31micrograms, was measured on June 4th at 7am which had dropped to 0.67 by the end of the day. During the time it takes for technicians to calibrate the equipment, normally between one and five hours, no hourly readings are recorded. This process is undertaken about once a month.

Interview with Chief Environmental Health Officer, Pepin Delgado.

Q: The recent row over Benzene levels in the refinery has heightened awareness about air pollution. As a professional in the field, what is your reaction to the original CSIC Report placing the legal limit at 5 micrograms per square metre of air and their subsequent clarification which allowed for a tolerance margin of an additional 5 micrograms? What is your interpretation of what went on?

A: Council Directive 2000/69/EC relating to limit values for benzene and carbon monoxide in ambient air sets the limit value for benzene for the protection of human health at 5µg/m3 averaged over a calendar year. This limit value is to be met by January 1st 2010.

In the meantime a margin of tolerance of an additional 5µg/m3 is allowed, reducing on 1 January 2006 and every 12 months thereafter by 1µg/m3 to reach 0µg/m3 by 1 January 2010.

This means that the present annual limit is 10µg/m3 and that it will decrease to 9µg/m3 as from 1 January 2006, 8 from 1 January 2007, 7 from 1 January 2008, 6 from 1 January 2009 and finally 5µg/m3 from 1 January 2010.

These are the limits set by the EC Directive, though individual Member States may maintain or introduce more stringent protective measures or limit values to protect the health of particularly vulnerable categories of the population, such as children and hospital patients.

We are not aware of “what went on” with the CSIC report. Our knowledge of this is limited to reports in the local Press and will therefore not speculate on this.

Q: In the context of medical advice that there is no safety threshold for Benzene, can you confirm that in Gibraltar, isolated peaks of Benzene levels have been recorded that exceed the maximum legal limit, even if this subsequently averages out below the legal limit when calculated over a 12 month period? Can you say what the benzene levels registered locally during the period May 20th onwards have been?

A: The limit values for benzene both in the EC Directive and in our own legislation (the Public Health (Air Quality Limit Values) Rules 2003) are expressed as annual averages and cannot therefore be compared to isolated peaks.

Monitoring in Gibraltar has only been carried out for the last few months and there is therefore insufficient data for annual averages to be obtained.

Details of benzene levels (and other pollutants) registered at air monitoring stations are available on line at

As requested, attached are details of benzene levels registered on an hourly basis at the Rosia Road monitoring station from 20 May to date. Early indications are that we will be well below the annual limit value.

Q: Are you confident that zero emissions is a realistic objective given that the refinery will be there for the foreseeable future and cars will continue to circulate our roads? What proportion of benzene in the atmosphere is attributable to motor cars?

A: The main sources of benzene in the atmosphere are the distribution and combustion of petrol. Of these, combustion by petrol vehicles is the single biggest source and accounts for 70% of total emissions.

There will also be areas of high benzene concentrations near industrial and petro-chemical works using this type of fuels.

So long as petrol is produced, distributed and used as it is nowadays, there will be emissions of benzene.

There are however other important sources of benzene, such as cigarette smoke. It is estimated that 70% of the total exposure to benzene during a person’s lifetime, will be due to tobacco smoke.

Q: The EU has stated that their desired objective of reducing these emissions must be done in stages to take account of the socio-economic dimensions of a petro-chemical industry. Given our physical proximity to the Refinery and not deriving employment opportunities from it, what is your view of the EU approach?

A: We do not know to what degree we may be affected by emissions from the refinery, this being the largest single source of benzene around Gibraltar. However, like all communities in the world, we also have our own sources of emissions such as cars, petrol distribution, power generation etc. If we were to demand zero emissions as from now, and without an alternative, life as we know it today would disappear.

Whether this would be a good or bad thing is a matter for individual judgement.

A reduction in emissions in stages, affording the opportunity for alternative less polluting technologies to be developed and put in place, would therefore appear the more logical, less impacting way of balancing risk with our present way of life.

Related Links and Articles:

17 June 2005 - Bay Bucket Brigade visit the Andalucian Ombudsman

10 June 2005 - BBB to meet with Andalucian Ombudsman

27 May 2005 - Junta intensifies efforts to combat Campo Pollution

25 May 2005 - CEPSA emissions within the Law - Confirmed

24 May 2005 - BBB responds to confusion on Benzene level limits

24 May 2005 - Scientists create confusion over Benzene legal limit

18 May 2005 - IU express concern in Andalusian Parliament

13 May 2005 - CSIC report confirms high levels of pollutants in the Bay of Gibraltar


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