Industry Hid Risks to Workers of Chromium, Watchdog Group Charges

February 26, 2006

Worried about stricter regulations, the chromium industry withheld key data from the government involving the health risks of workers exposed to the carcinogenic metal, according to a study released Feb. 23.

The paper by George Washington University and the group Public Citizen, published in Environmental Health, found the industry submitted incomplete data last year on the links between hexavalent chromium and lung cancer.

Hexavalent chromium, the chemical featured in the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich, is used in chrome plating, stainless steel welding and the production of chromate pigments and dyes. Approximately 380,000 welders, steelworkers and jewelers are exposed to it on the job.

The new findings come one week before the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is scheduled, by court order, to issue a new standard on acceptable workplace levels of chromium. A federal appeals court set the Feb. 28 deadline after Public Citizen sued over delays in issuing a rule.

“The circumstances regarding this study raise troubling questions about the ability of the government to effectively issue rules protecting public health when studies are conducted, controlled and selectively published,” said Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

OSHA said it was working hard “to produce a final rule that complies with the court’s order.” A spokeswoman, Sharon Worthy, declined additional comment.

Kate McMahon, an attorney representing the trade group Chrome Coalition, called charges that the industry was scheming to manipulate data “completely unfounded and wrong.”

She said the industry told OSHA in 1998 that it was planning a four-site study, with two in the U.S. and two in Germany. It then got overlooked after the bankruptcy of the chromium industry-funded group coordinating the research, the Industrial Health Foundation. The German portion of the study was not submitted to OSHA because it has yet to be published by a peer-edited journal, McMahon said.

According to the paper, in 1997 industry groups commissioned the study on chromium’s risks in anticipation of an OSHA move to further restrict workplace levels of the metal.

But once the study was completed in 2002, industry groups gave OSHA selected data suggesting that only the highest and not intermediate exposure of chromium led to a significantly higher risk of lung cancer death.

“Public health rulemakings should not be based on partial records or limited by scientists’ career concerns, particularly when lives hang in the balance,” the paper says.

Public Citizen and the paper’s lead author, David Michaels of George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services, said they stumbled upon evidence that key data was withheld in documents disclosed last year following Industrial Health Foundation’s bankruptcy.

Public Citizen says it has submitted the complete four-site data to OSHA. But it’s unclear whether OSHA is considering the information because it came after the agency stopped accepting material for its rule-making process, the watchdog group said.

Currently, OSHA regulations cap chromium levels at work to 52 micrograms per cubic meter. It supports restricting levels to 1 microgram per cubic meter, which is slightly lower than “intermediate” exposure levels of 1.2 to 5.8, according to the paper.

Public Citizen is urging OSHA to restrict the level to 0.25 microgram per cubic meter.

OSHA has estimated that approximately 380,000 workers are exposed to hexavalent chromium, which is used in chrome plating, stainless steel welding and the production of chromate pigments and dyes. Studies dating back to the 1940s have documented that exposure can cause lung cancer.

A copy of the paper:
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