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Hundreds of Thousands of Workers at Risk from Hexavalent Chromium, Study Obtained Through FOIA Shows

July 11, 2000

Hundreds of Thousands of Workers at Risk from Hexavalent Chromium, Study Obtained Through FOIA Shows

Erin Brockovich and Public Citizen to Criticize OSHA Inaction

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Public Citizen today released a study that demonstrates more clearly than any prior research that hexavalent chromium is a potent cause of lung cancer. Lung cancer rates among plant workers exposed to the chemical in their workplaces were almost double what would have been expected among otherwise similar individuals, according to the study, which was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The study was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) through a cooperative agreement with Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health.

“The case is closed. Hexavalent chromium is a potent carcinogen. The only remaining question is why it has taken the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) so long to adequately regulate it,” said Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen?s Health Research Group.

“The results of this study were first presented publicly five years ago, yet the EPA and Johns Hopkins permitted the results to remain unpublished even as hundreds of workers unnecessarily contracted and died from lung cancer,” Lurie said. “This is public health irresponsibility on a grand scale.”

In a 1993 petition and a 1997 lawsuit, Public Citizen and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW, now the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, or PACE) argued that OSHA?s permissible exposure limit for hexavalent chromium should be lowered from the present 100 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) to 0.5 ug/m3.

At the press conference, Public Citizen was joined on the phone by Erin Brockovich, director of research at Masry & Vititoe, whose struggle to compensate residents exposed to groundwater contaminated with hexavalent chromium was featured in the recent movie titled “Erin Brockovich,” in which Ms. Brockovich was played by Julia Roberts.

“How long must the suffering continue?” Brockovich said. “I have personally seen the suffering of chromium-exposed people. For OSHA to permit the ongoing poisoning of American workers is a disgrace.”

Added Edward Masry, principal partner at Masry & Vititoe, the firm that filed a class action lawsuit seeking compensation for the chromium-exposed residents, “This new study makes OSHA’s failure to adequately regulate chromium in the workplace all the more reckless.”

Hexavalent chromium is used in the production of metal alloys such as stainless steel, chrome plating and pigments. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers are exposed to hexavalent chromium, particularly those in the pigment and plating industries, and in chromium production plants.

Since Public Citizen and the OCAW filed its petition in 1993, OSHA has made a series of unkept promises about when it would regulate hexavalent chromium, starting with March 1995. The current promise is to issue a proposed regulation by June 2001. The chromium industry has insisted that no regulation take place until the present study was published.

The study, to be published in the August issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, included 2,357 men who began working at a chromate production plant in Baltimore, Md., between 1945 and 1974. Unlike previous studies, it was able to adjust for smoking status and had detailed chromium exposure data. It also had seven times as many workers, five times as much follow-up data and twice as many deaths as the previous leading study.

Workers in the study were divided into four groups, or quartiles. Workers in the third-highest exposure quartile had a risk of death from lung cancer 1.6 times higher than would have been expected for otherwise similar individuals; this quartile included the permissible exposure limit for which OCAW and Public Citizen petitioned in 1993. Workers in the fourth quartile were 2.2 times more likely to die from lung cancer than would have been expected; this quartile included the current OSHA permissible exposure limit. The increased risk of lung cancer persisted even after controlling for other variables such as smoking and race.

“In seven and a half years in office, the Clinton administration has failed to issue a single proposed regulation for an occupational chemical,” said Dr. Sidney M. Wolfe, director of Public Citizen?s Health Research Group. “This is the poorest record for chemical health standards of any administration since the the Occupational Safety and Health Act went into effect in 1971.”