Tuesday, February 15, 2005

A Lesson from Canaries

By Joel Shufro
December 2004

Most occupational safety and health activists know how canaries were used in coal mines.

Back in the days before gas detectors, coal miners would take a caged canary down into the mine for protection from carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas. Canaries are much more sensitive to CO than humans, so the canary would die and fall to the bottom of its cage if a low concentration of CO was present, giving the miners a warning that they should get out and increase ventilation before returning. Today, we would say that the canary-equipped miners were practicing good hazard identification, one of the basic skills needed to work safely.

Currently we are faced with a deplorable example of how dangerous it is to ignore a fallen canary. Soon after Teflon-coated cookware was introduced more than five decades ago, bird owners discovered that the fumes from a scorched Teflon-coated pan were deadly to their pets. Today, most books about taking care of birds warn that they should not be kept in a kitchen if Teflon cookware is in use.

Because Teflon's manufacturer, DuPont, insisted that Teflon, even scorched Teflon, was non-toxic to humans, the death of some unfortunate birds were largely ignored, until recently, when it has become apparent that one ingredient of Teflon causes cancer in rats, and is associated with prostate, testicular, and pancreatic cancer in exposed DuPont workers. Most disturbingly, recent studies have shown 90 percent of people in the United States have some of that ingredient (which is not known to occur naturally) in their blood. Perhaps if the deaths of the birds had been fully investigated, the ingredient's toxicity would have been discovered in time to prevent it from becoming ubiquitous.

The use of birds as toxic sentinels carries an important lesson. It is far better to identify an occupational or environmental hazard and take corrective action than it is to use humans in place of canaries. Potentially toxic environments and chemicals ought to be considered hazardous until proved safe, and not vice versa.

Thousands of New York City workers are now caught up in another inexcusable hazard-identification fiasco. Almost as soon as the World Trade Center towers collapsed on 9/11, it was clear that the dust that filled the air of Lower Manhattan and lay in drifts on the ground was at the very least highly irritating to the eyes, throat and lungs. Of course, it wasn't possible to provide all the rescue workers with respiratory protection on 9/11, but there was time to provide it within several days or a week, and to make sure that it was worn. But those who should have identified the hazard did not do so, with the result that more than 6,000 workers have serious respiratory problems. Since no one knows exactly what and how much toxic material they were exposed to, their prognosis is unknown. As Steve Levin, the director of the World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program put it recently, "From a public health perspective, we failed horribly."

The need to identify hazards and take appropriate action is a major feature of another potential threat to public health and safety. According to a 2003 report by the federal Government Accountability Office, there are some 700 chemical facilities in the United States that could, in the event of a worst-case chemical release, hurt or kill more than 100,000 people. Many of those plants could be made much safer by substituting non-toxic or less-toxic chemicals for toxic ones, and by reducing the quantity of toxic chemicals stored on site. Now, more than

18 months after the GAO report came out, nothing has been done to reduce the hazard.

Hazard identification doesn't work by itself. When the miners' canary fell, the miners had to respond by going where the air was good. When Teflon fumes killed birds, the clear indication of an unknown hazard was ignored for decades, and now Dupont's workers and the public are suffering the consequences.

Workers and unions at facilities that process hazardous materials need to work with members of the neighboring communities to ensure that all government regulations concerning the storage and use of hazardous materials are scrupulously followed. All concerned should also familiarize themselves with federal, state and local community right-to-know regulations and ensure that all relevant information about potential hazards is properly disseminated.

For anyone who works or lives in the vicinity of one of the chemical plants spotlighted by the GAO, the publication of the report was the equivalent of the canary falling off its perch. The hazard has been identified, but that is only the first step in making workers and the public as safe as possible.

Joel Shufro is the executive Director of NYCOSH, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. This essay was written as the cover letter to the NYCOSH Clipping File and reprinted in the APHA's Occupational Health and Safety Section Newsletter. The Clipping File is mailed to NYCOSH members four times a year. For information about becoming a member of NYCOSH, click here.