Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Hexavalent Chromium: A long story, lacking sound or fury

Let's imagine we had a law that gives workers the right to a safe workplace and that the agency was supposed to issue standards to protect workers against hazardous chemicals.

Now suppose there was a sister agency that was supposed to conduct research into workplace hazards and issue recommendations for standards. Suppose this agency had determined that a certain chemical

should be considered carcinogenic and a cause of liver and kidney tumors and central nervous system effects [and that] extensive testing has shown it also causes lung cancer, asthma, skin ulcerations and contact dermatitis in the 1 million workers exposed to it.

In fact, this chemical was so bad that the research agency recommended that the regulatory agency issue an emergency standard.

Now imagine that more than 25 years later, the regulatory agency has basically done nothing.

I'd say that one might question the effectiveness of that agency. In a rational world, Congress, which established the agency almost 35 years ago, would rise up in anger and demand that the agency get off its butt and issue that standard.

Of course, in the real world, that regulatory agency is OSHA, the research agency is NIOSH, the chemical is hexavalent chromium, the current Congress eats its young is in the business of killing OSHA standards, not promoting them, and real people continue to get sick and die from chromium poisoning.

Happily, we still have an independent court system (for now) that believes that the federal agencies should actually exercise the responsibilities given them by Congress.

Only after two lawsuits and a court order issued in April 2003, which essentially told the agency "enough is enough," did the wheels of the regulatory machinery begin to turn in a meaningful way.

On Oct. 4, OSHA issued three proposals that would cover general industry, construction and shipyards, lowering the permissible exposure from the current standard of 52 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 1 microgram on an eight-hour, time-weighted average -- a limit that is four times higher than what Public Citizen requested in its petition. The proposal also calls for controlling exposure through engineering controls, protective clothing and respiratory protection

The Washington Post's Cindy Skrzycki does a pretty good job explaining the sorry history of OSHA's slow journey to a hexavalent chromium standard.

You may recall from the recent election the the Republican Presidential candidate's economic program was based on getting rid of "burdensome regulations." This same candidate, in his first term, issued no significant safety or health standards. Yet Article II of the Constitution of the United States states that the President "shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed." That would be the office of the Presidency that he has sworn to "faithfully execute."

That's faithfully, not faith-based.

Faith based toxicology? Big government run amok?