Workplace Rules on Chromium Intake Revised

The Labor Department reduces the maximum acceptable levels of exposure to hexavalent chromium. It's a metal breathed in by jewelers, steelworkers and welders. The new limit is five times higher than what was recommended two years ago.

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Back now with DAY TO DAY. The federal government's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, this week announced new standards for hexavalent chromium. That's the carcinogenic chemical in the movie "Erin Brockovich." Hundreds of thousands of workers are exposed to it everyday: welders, airplane painters, workers in metal-plating, and chemical companies. Union officials and health advocates say the new standards are not nearly enough to protect workers from lung cancer, and they say, the way the government set the new standards shows industry has far too much influence in the process.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has more.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

Hexavalent chromium gained notoriety in the movie "Erin Brockovich." The character played by Julia Roberts discovers that this chemical is hurting workers.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Hexavelent chromium can be very harmful.

Ms. JULIA ROBERTS (Actress): (As Erin Brockovich) So, it kills people?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Oh, yeah.

SHOGREN: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says workers exposed to airborne particles of hexavalent chromium face a significant risk of lung cancer, but it took 13 years and two lawsuits to force the agency to reconsider it's 35-year-old standard. While OSHA was developing the standard, it repeatedly asked the chromium industry for studies that explored the link between relatively low levels of chromium exposure and lung cancer. The industry didn't produce any, but a curious professor did a little amateur sleuthing, and found that the industry had done such a study.

Professor DAVID MICHAELS (Toxicologist, George Washington University): I got very lucky.

SHOGREN: David Michaels is a toxicologist at George Washington University.

Prof. MICHAELS: I did a Google search on some of the companies involved, and happened to run into a bankruptcy proceeding, and through looking at papers filed in the bankruptcy proceeding, was able to track down someone who had the original studies that were never given to OSHA.

SHOGREN: Michaels accuses the industry of trying to manipulate the new standard by withholding the results of this study.

Prof. MICHAELS: What the hidden study shows is that pretty low levels of exposure to airborne chronium clearly increased the risk of lung cancer in workers who were exposed.

SHOGREN: He and Peter Lurie, from the health advocacy group Public Citizen, published a report about their findings in the journal, Environmental Health. Lurie says the episode shows that the rules governing health standards for workers need to be tightened, because what the chromium industry did is not illegal.

Dr. PETER LURIE (Deputy Director of Health Research, Public Citizen): But there's no question that they're doing something immoral.

SHOGREN: Kate McMann(ph), a lawyer for the chromium and steel industries, calls the accusations outrageous.

Ms. KATE McMANN (Attorney): There was no intentional, you know, deep-sixing of a report. There was no manipulation of data. There was no hiding of any data or any reports. That is, in our view, pure politics.

SHOGREN: She says there were scientific reasons that some data were separated out before publishing. As it turns out, it might not have made any difference to the new standard if the data from the industry study had been revealed earlier, because OSHA didn't base its standard on the risk to workers.

A year and a half ago, the agency proposed setting a limit of one part per million hexavalent chromium in the air. Yesterday, it announced that its final standard would allow up to five parts per million. Jonathan Snare, the acting assistant secretary of labor who oversees OSHA, says the agency set the standard at five because it was the most stringent standard that was economically and technically feasible.

Mr. JONATHAN SNARE (U.S. Secretary of Labor): Our mandate, statutorily and otherwise, is to reduce the significant risk to the extent feasible.

SHOGREN: Michael Wright, of the United Steel Workers Union, says the new standard is not nearly protective enough.

Mr. MICHAEL WRIGHT (United Steel Workers Union): That means, to put it frankly, that people will die.

SHOGREN: Usually, when the federal government comes up with a standard, it considers one fatality per thousand workers to be a significant health risk, but the government's own estimate shows that, under the new standard, 10 to 45 workers per thousand will develop lung cancer.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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