Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Canary Has Died: Trichloroethylene To Blame

We've talked a lot in this blog about how under the US system of chemical "safety," chemicals are considered to be innocent until proven guilty, and workers are the canaries for society -- that is, workers will show the effects of toxic chemicals before the general public.
Until fall 2003, workers in a Wilkes-Barre special-education school district gave little thought to the chemical they knew only as deglazing solvent.

Used to clean ink from two printing presses in the district's main administration building, the solvent routinely spilled onto the carpet. Its stench drifted through the air ducts. Still, it seemed nothing more than an annoyance -- until Antoinette Dominick was diagnosed with cancer.

Dominick is among roughly two dozen employees of Luzerne Intermediate Unit 18 who have been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, lupus, or other diseases linked by studies to trichloroethylene -- or TCE -- the solvent whose vapors permeated the three-story building. Although about 200 people worked in the building over three decades, most who became seriously ill were long-time employees, said Sandy Ostrowski, president of the Educational Support Personnel Association, a local union. For this reason, suspicion fell on TCE, which can be harmful when inhaled or ingested.
The chemical industry, faced with such evidence, has hurried to warn people and reduce exposures to TCE, right?

In August 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency published a draft health risk assessment of the chemical, concluding that it was "highly likely to be carcinogenic to humans." The draft met with a barrage of criticism, especially from the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, the trade association that represents TCE manufacturers.

After decades of research, there is no compelling evidence that TCE causes cancer in people, said Paul Dugard, the group's director of scientific programs. "It does a good job [as a solvent] and can be handled responsibly," he said. Given the extent of ground-water pollution with TCE, he said, "we're lucky the material turned out to be as benign as it did."
Instead of telling the industry to go to hell, EPA has courageously called for another study, this time by the National Academy of Sciences.Dr. David Ozonoff, a professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health, is not amused. Ozonoff
calls the EPA "cowardly" for failing to take a stand on TCE. "There's a lack of political will at the highest levels," said Ozonoff, who has studied the solvent extensively and believes it to be dangerous. "They just don't want to mess around with this industry."
Meanwhile, back at the school district, district officials hired a consultant to test the building. He found nothing amiss. The union then hired its own consultant from Pennsylvania State University for another look:
They found significant levels of TCE and estimated cancer risks for the workers. The numbers were stunning.

One of the Penn State researchers, Richard Schuhmann, calculated that the cancer risk for someone who had worked in the building at least 10 years was 10,000 times higher than what the EPA considers acceptable. "Frankly," he said, "I've never seen that before."

Schuhmann presented the findings to a group of workers on June 19, a Saturday. By the following Monday, the building had been closed.
But just a little too late for Antoinette Dominick and here co-canaries.