Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Diesel Exhaust: "They said my lungs were black"

Jim Morris in USA Today takes up the story of the Bush administration's attempt to delay enforcement of MSHA's diesel exhaust standard in salt and other non-coal mines.
Some years ago, salt miner Curtis Layman went to the doctor for a checkup prior to a hernia operation. The exam revealed that Layman's lungs were in terrible shape, prompting the doctor to deliver a stern warning: Quit smoking.

Layman explained that he didn't smoke. He had, however, worked for decades at the Morton Salt mine in Fairport, Ohio, inhaling exhaust from diesel-powered machines. "They said my lungs were black," says the 66-year-old Layman, now retired. "It kind of scared me."

Morton Salt worker Wes Smith, 49, president of United Steelworkers Local 5-966, says he has seen many other union members with lung damage, heart disease and other ailments that he attributes at least partly to the acrid smoke given off by front-end loaders, bulldozers and cutting machines.
We've already covered this story before, but Morris gets right to the point:
A rule to strictly limit exposures for some 18,000 non-coal miners in the USA was to have taken effect Jan. 20. It would have required mine operators to cut underground diesel emissions by 60%.

But after the mining industry questioned the quality of the science on exposure to diesel fumes and voiced concern about the costs of complying with the stricter exposure limit, MSHA said it would consider a five-year delay. A decision is expected in May.
As usual, the industry says there's no science, we need to do more studies, blah, blah, yadda, yadda. But
"The scientific evidence is absolutely clear," says Linda Rosenstock, dean of the UCLA School of Public Health and former director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The definitive study of miners exposed to diesel — a joint effort by NIOSH and the National Cancer Institute — won't be finished until next year, at the earliest. But a number of other studies suggest that diesel poses a threat.

A 1998 NIOSH study, for example, concluded that truckers face a lung cancer risk 10 times higher than what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) allows in setting regulations.

A more recent study of railroad workers, conducted by researchers with the Veterans Affairs Boston health care System, found: "Lung cancer mortality was elevated in jobs associated with work on trains powered by diesel locomotives." Rodent studies also have found cancer and other effects from heavy, chronic diesel exposures.
Although Morris points out that "the evidence is not beyond dispute," the reality of occupational health (or public health in general) is that the evidence is almost never "beyond dispute" for any disease. The point of public health, and much of the reason for the existence of OSHA and MSHA, are to address workplace health issues before they kill workers. And it's the job of public health officials -- including MSHA and OSHA -- to address public health concerns even in the face of inevitable uncertainty. As George Bush would say, "It's hard work." But to surrender in the face of uncertaintly is to condemn workers to preventable and needless illness and death.

As Dr. David Michaels and Celeste Monforton wrote in an article about how industry "manufactures uncertainty" to set up roadblocks to protective regulation:
Outbreaks of work-related disease and death helped fuel the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) in 1970. In congressional hearings, workers and scientists described numerous outbreaks of work-related disease with regard to which no action was taken until a sufficiently large number of workers had died. Tony Mazzocchi, a labor leader and forceful advocate for the OSH Act, called this “the body in the morgue approach.” In order to prevent future work-related epidemics, Congress created OSHA and authorized the agency to develop standards based on the best scientific evidence available. Congress afforded the agency a great deal of leeway in identifying hazards and setting protective exposure limits to enable the agency to act before large numbers of individuals became sick.
Although Michaels and Monforton were writing about OSHA, the same principle holds true for MSHA. The "body in the morgue approach" may be fine for the corporate bottom line, but it stinks if you're the one inhaling the fumes.

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