As this issue goes to press, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a controversial new standard on hexavalent chromium exposure in the workplace.
“After last week’s revelations that the industry withheld critical data from the agency, OSHA’s announcement of a new permissible exposure limit (PEL) for chromium is flawed and suspect,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan. “We urge the agency to withdraw its new rule and initiate an expedited process to issue a new one.”
The long-delayed standard was issued only after the agency lost two lawsuits filed by Public Citizen and was then ordered by the court to develop and issue a standard. Testimony was taken last spring, and the standard was scheduled for publication this past January. However, OSHA, citing extra burdens imposed by the demands of Hurricane Katrina, asked for a one-month extension, and the standard was issued February 28.
Last week, however, researchers at George Washington University and Public Citizen announced that they had obtained secret industry documents that show that the industry first withheld and then modified study results that demonstrated a fivefold increase in lung cancer deaths when workers were exposed to “moderate” levels of hexavalent chromium.
Thus, the new standard announced today begs more questions than it answers. Chief among these is whether the agency will investigate the allegations of the George Washington University researchers and, thus, reconsider the permissible exposure limit set in the standard.
The new PEL is five micrograms per cubic meter of air. OSHA calculates that this limit would result in ten to 45 deaths (beyond the expected number if there was no exposure) in every 1,000 workers over a 45-year lifetime of work. A one microgram standard would have produced two to nine excess deaths, according to OSHA. The old standard was 52 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Public Citizen and other advocates, relying on recent large exposure studies, had recommended a limit of 0.25 micrograms.
In 2004, when OSHA first suggested it might issue a one microgram limit, it asked the industry to provide any new data that might better inform its evaluation. In particular, it asked for data about the low exposures typical in modern manufacturing plants.
It was this information that the industry withheld from OSHA, according to the researchers at George Washington. It was contained in a 153-page summary of an industry-sponsored study of workers in chromium plants in the U.S. and Germany. The report concluded that moderate exposures in the 1.2 to 5.8 microgram range resulted in a fivefold increase in lung cancer deaths. Instead of sharing this information with OSHA, the industry scientists revamped the results, dividing them into two sets and regrouping the data, and then published a 2004 report that showed no increased risk to workers in this range. This “reprocessed” report was provided to OSHA Also supplied was pre-publication review of another study of the same data, soon to be published, in which the same scientists found an increased risk only in those with very high exposures.
On the defensive about the apparent withholding of data that might have encouraged a stronger PEL, Joel Barnhart, the chairman of the Chromium Coalition – the industry group that sponsored the study – said, speaking to a Washington Post reporter, “I feel confident that no one I’m aware of was trying to intentionally hide what they thought was useful information.”
Yet, at the same time, the coalition did provide testimony to OSHA that the one microgram limit would cost the industry more than $5 billion annually and would force the closing of perhaps half the nation’s electroplating shops. However, independent research on the effects of OSHA rulemaking has constantly shown industry’s cost estimates to be overstated.
O’Sullivan also is concerned about the new standard’s failure to address the issue of hexavalent chromium exposure in construction (see second story). Exposure to the chemical in wet Portland cement causes severe and often irreversible concrete dermatitis. Despite the written testimony of more than 200 Laborers – and the existence of a practical, cost-effective remedy that is now required in Europe – OSHA chose not act on behalf of construction workers.
“As it reconsiders its airborne exposure limit,” says O’Sullivan, “OSHA should revisit wet concrete exposure and require the inexpensive cement additives that would chemically eliminate the danger in wet cement.”