Advocates/Labor Unions Want Less Chemical Exposure

US Asked to Cut Cancer-Causing Chemical Exposure

By Peter Szekely

WASHINGTON Mar 05, 2002 (Reuters) - A consumer advocacy group and a labor union asked a federal court on Monday to order the government to cut workers' exposure levels to a cancer-causing chemical used in chrome and stainless steel manufacturing.

Saying the government unreasonably delayed lowering the allowable exposure limit for hexavalent chromium, which can cause lung cancer, the groups asked the court to order the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration to propose a reduced limit within 60 days.

The suit was filed by Public Citizen and the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union in the US Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.

"Every relevant scientific body has concluded that hexavalent chromium is a potent carcinogen," said Dr. Peter Lurie of Public Citizen's Health Research Group.

"But OSHA has failed to follow the research to its logical conclusion, imperiling the lives of thousands of Americans," he said in a statement.

Hexavalent chromium had a leading role in the movie "Erin Brockovich," which documented a woman's battle to win compensation for victims of groundwater contaminated with the substance.

OSHA has estimated that about 1 million workers are exposed to hexavalent chromium, which is used in chrome plating, stainless steel welding and making chromate pigments and dyes.

The chemical will cause between 8.8% and 34.2% of those exposed to it to develop lung cancer over a normal working life, Lurie said, citing the conclusions of a study done for OSHA. He said his group had similar results.

An OSHA spokeswoman declined to comment on anything related to the suit except to say that "hexavalent chromium is on our current regulatory agenda and work continues."

The agency has given no timeframe for proposing a new limit on the substance, which has been on OSHA's regulatory agenda since the 1990s.

Public Citizen and the union's predecessor, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, said they filed a petition with OSHA in 1993 requesting that the agency cut the permissible exposure limit for hexavalent chromium to 0.5 micrograms per cubic meter, one two-hundredth of the current 100-microgram level.

In 1994, OSHA denied the petition, saying instead it would start working on a rule in 1995 to dramatically reduce the limit, which the groups said the agency never did.

"The agency has put the concerns of the industry before the health of workers," Dave Ortlieb, director of the union's health and safety department, said in a statement.

Public Citizen also issued an analysis of measurements of airborne hexavalent chromium taken by OSHA between 1990 and 2000, which showed that 21% of measurements exceeded the current OSHA limit.

On the other hand, the group said 13% of the measurements were lower than the limit it is seeking, suggesting that compliance is possible.

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