Scientists working for the chromium industry withheld data about the metal's health risks while the industry campaigned to block strict new limits on the cancer-causing chemical, according to a scientific journal report published yesterday.The report appears in the journal Environmental Health.
The allegations, by researchers at George Washington University and the Washington-based Public Citizen Health Research Group, are based on secret industry documents obtained by the authors.
They come just days before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is to announce its new standard for workplace exposure to hexavalent chromium -- a known carcinogen handled by 380,000 U.S. workers in the steel, aerospace, electroplating and other industries.
OSHA has not said what the new limit will be. But sources close to the agency have been told to expect a standard that would allow five times more exposure than it had initially proposed -- a shift that would be a victory for the industry, saving it billions of dollars in upgrades and plant closures.
The industry's failure to make the information public is especially troubling considering that OSHA, in the course of court-ordered rulemaking, requested industry to provide any new data particularly "data related to relatively low exposures common in modern factories, so the agency would not have to extrapolate from the very high exposure levels in earlier studies."
Turns out that the industry's "Chromium Coalition" had exactly that evidence, but was hiding it. George Washington University Professor David Michaels, Celeste Monforton (also at GW) and Peter Lurie of Public Citizen (which sued OSHA for a new standard) happened upon the evidence last year when the Industrial Health Foundation, the Chromium Coalition's legal agent, filed for bankruptcy and Michaels and Lurie got a look at some of their files.
Among them are the 1996 minutes of Chromium Coalition meetings describing a decision to hire scientists to create and analyze data that would "challenge" OSHA's nascent effort to impose low exposure limits.OSHA is on the verge of issuing a new Hexavalent Chromium standard. The agency is under court order, following a lawsuit by Public Citizen after the agency failed to act on a 1993 Public Citizen petition for a new standard.
"Although this route is expensive and success is not guaranteed, the longer we wait the more difficult the task becomes," one document concludes.
Most surprising was a 153-page report summarizing an industry-sponsored study of workers in chromium plants in the United States and Germany. The study was the most thorough ever to include workers exposed to low levels -- just what OSHA had asked for. But its results had never been released.
The report concluded that exposures ranging from 1.2 to 5.8 micrograms resulted in a fivefold increase in deaths from lung cancer.
"Here you have an agency repeatedly asking for data of this kind, and nothing is forthcoming," Lurie said.
The contract scientists who led the study had gone on to divide the data into two sets and changed the way they grouped the workers. As a result, one study -- published in 2004 -- found no increased risk, and the other -- soon to be published -- found an increased risk only in those with very high exposures.
Those manuscripts were submitted to OSHA.
"Maybe there's a reason they did it that way. I don't know. But on the surface it doesn't look very good," said Herman Gibb, an environmental consultant who led a seminal Environmental Protection Agency study of 70,000 chromium workers in Baltimore.
Of course, those assumptions are based on a record that is lacking some of the most relevant data uncovered by Michaels and Lurie.
The decades-old "permissible exposure level" is 52 micrograms per cubic meter of air. On the basis of the few large studies done in recent years, advocates sought a new level of 0.25 micrograms. In 2004 OSHA released a proposed limit of 1 microgram.
According to OSHA, the 1 microgram limit would result in two to nine excess deaths in every 1,000 exposed workers over a 45-year lifetime of work. That is more than the one-death-per-1,000 standard the agency aims for but is reasonable, it said, in light of the high costs and technological challenges involved.
Now, some of your innocents out there may think that a company that covers up evidence that it products may be harming or killing people would be guilty of some kind of criminal behavior. But, no, turns out this is just another day in the life of corporate America (as those of you who regularly read Confined Space are aware.) Michaels, who is doing quite a bit of work in this area, points out that industry's behavior in this case is similar to that of tobacco and pharmaceutical companies that were found to have withheld damning evidence of risks associated with their products. And if you've read Deceit and Denial by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, you'll find almost identical tactics throughout the history of lead and vinyl chloride. Oh, and then there's the little issue of asbestos....
Michaels is also director of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP), a coalition of scholars examining the application of scientific evidence in the legal and regulatory arenas. Check out the SKAPP webpage for a number of case studies that explore the use of science in government decision-making and in legal proceedings.
Brown University professor David Egilman has also written extensively on "suppression bias," where a company that has uncovered evidence that their product may be harmful to workers or consumers "choose[s] not to share that information with workers, customers, and the general public, especially when the studies reveal alarming health consequences."
So let's move along, nothing to see here. Sleep well. You're in good hands.
- OSHA's Belated Hex Chrome Standard: "Sorry I'm Late Dude, But There Was This Humongous Hurricane, and uh....", November 30, 2005
- Suppression Bias: Uncovering the Coverup of the Corporate Coverup, May 23, 2005
- Hexavalent Chromium: A long story, lacking sound or fury, November 10, 2004
- OSHA Issues Hex Chrome Proposal, October 2, 2004