Tuesday, February 28, 2006

OSHA Issues Weak Hexavalent Chromium Standard: "Workers Will Die"

Facing a court-ordered deadline, OSHA has issued its long-awaited standard to reduce workers' exposure to cancer-causing hexavalent chromium. Unfortunately, the standard represents a major victory for industry as OSHA lowered the standard from 52 micrograms of chromium per cubic meter of air to 5 micrograms, after originally proposing to a 1 microgram limit in 2004.

The new standard comes less than a week after an article revealed that scientists working for the chromium industry withheld data showing that even very low level exposures cause cancer.

Exposure to hexavalent chromium compounds can cause lung cancer, nasal septum ulcerations and perforations, skin ulcerations, and allergic and irritant contact dermatitis. A variety of related compounds are used in the chemical industry as ingredients and catalysts in pigments, metal plating and chemical synthesis. Chromum VI can also be produced when welding on stainless steel or surfaces painted with the chemical.

Public Citizen, which filed the lawsuit that eventually forced the agency to issue the standard, called the new regulation "seriously inadequate" and announced that it would file a lawsuit challenging the new limit.
For 13 years, Public Citizen has campaigned for a permissible exposure limit of .25 micrograms per cubic meter. The agency itself estimates 10 to 45 lung cancer deaths per 1,000 workers over a lifetime at the 5 micrograms per cubic meter level (compared to the .53-2.3 deaths per 1,000 workers over a lifetime at the Public Citizen-requested standard of .25 micrograms per cubic meter). Even the now-abandoned 1 microgram level proposed by OSHA in October 2004 would have led to 2.1-9.1 lung cancer deaths per 1,000 workers over a lifetime. Thus, hundreds of extra lung cancer deaths will occur if the weak OSHA-proposed standard is allowed to stand.

According to the Washington Post,
The agency cited technical challenges to achieving lower exposures and effects on the industry's bottom line as the main reason for going with the five-microgram limit instead of the one-microgram limit it had initially proposed.

"After a careful analysis, we determined that . . . five is the lowest level that is feasible both technologically and economically," said Jonathan L. Snare, acting assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, speaking to reporters on a conference call.
Public Citizen disputed Snare's arguments:
The great majority of chromium-exposed workers work at sites that are already in compliance with the new proposed standard. OSHA has denied additional protections to these workers apparently because it may be more difficult for a small minority of employers to meet a lower standard. This lowest common denominator approach to rulemaking – in which all chromium-using sectors need only meet the standard that can be met by the sector with the greatest difficulty complying with a stronger standard – leaves OSHA highly vulnerable to a court challenge because the agency has failed to set a limit that eliminates significant health risks to the maximum extent technologically and economically feasible in each affected industry, as required by law.
Meanwhile, despite winning this round, industry representatives pulled out the same old tired script they use whenever OSHA issues a new standard:
"This is going to cause significant upheaval within our industry," said Kate McMahon-Lohrer, a lawyer with Collier Shannon Scott, speaking for the stainless steel industry. She said OSHA vastly overestimated the percentage of companies already complying with the new standard and underestimated the rule's cost.

"This will cause a significant number of factory closures or outsourcing to foreign soils, and it will have a very real impact on import penetration in this country's steel markets," McMahon-Lohrer predicted.
(As we noted last week, this sickenly familiar industry refrain makes for great job blackmail, but is not backed by fact. The cost of every OSHA standard studied has fallen way below industry -- and OSHA -- estimates.)

Of course, these days industry doesn't have much opportunity to sow fear throughout the land. The hexavalent chromium standard is the first chemical standard that OSHA has issued since 1997.
"OSHA chemical standards are so rare it's like Halley's Comet," said David Michaels, a George Washington University professor of public policy who, with [Public Citzen's Peter] Lurie, led a recently published study indicating that industry-sponsored scientists had withheld and manipulated data about chromium's toxicity in an effort to influence OSHA's deliberations.

Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers, accused the industry of "playing fast and loose with the data on risk" and said "many dedicated public servants" at OSHA were increasingly being overruled by political appointees beholden to business.

"The consequence of OSHA's decision," Wright said, "will be that workers will die."

Related Stories