People living near factories may well wonder what health problems emissions from those plants may cause. Most have seen the film Erin Brockovich which details the cancer-causing effects of a nearby Pacific Gas & Electric plant on the residents of Hinkley, California.

Now it appears that passive benzene exposure from local petroleum refineries and manufacturing plants raises the incidence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). And the closer one is to the plant, the higher the non-Hodgkin lymphoma risk, according to the results of an Emory University study.

Benzene is a component of gasoline, and exposure to it can cause genetic and chromosomal changes.

For every mile the average distance to benzene release sites increased, there was a 0.31% decrease in the risk of NHL.

Further studies are needed to corroborate the results, but “…we hope that our research will inform readers of the potential risks of living near facilities that release cancer-causing substances, called carcinogens, into the air, groundwater, or soil,” said Catherine Bulka, an author on the study, in a statement.

As industrial production in the United States has increased over the past several decades, so has the incidence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The researchers analyzed data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Georgia Comprehensive Cancer Registry, and found that for every mile the average distance to benzene release sites increased, there was a 0.31% decrease in the risk of NHL.

The metro-Atlanta area, Augusta, and Savannah had the highest incidences of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Significantly higher than expected rates were seen in the areas surrounding benzene release sites located in the metro-Atlanta region and one in Savannah. However, the incidence of the disease was unrelated to proximity to such sites in other, more rural, parts of Georgia.

The researchers concluded that additional studies are needed to examine patterns of non-Hodgkin lymphoma incidence in other geographic regions and interactions between benzene and exposure to other carcinogens. They hope that similar studies will help researchers and officials to identify public health threats and enact policies to decrease the risk of cancer from industrial carcinogen exposure.

The study is published online in the journal Cancer.