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Workers Continue to be Exposed to High Levels of Hexavalent Chromium in U.S. Workplaces, New Study Shows

Oct. 23, 2002

Workers Continue to be Exposed to High Levels of Hexavalent Chromium in U.S. Workplaces, New Study Shows

Industry Can Meet Safer Standard for Worker Exposure to Carcinogen But Isn’t Required To

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Workers continue to be exposed to a known lung carcinogen at their jobs and exposure levels do not appear to be decreasing, a Public Citizen study published in the November issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine concludes. Twenty-one percent of measurements violated the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s (OSHA) eight-hour permissible exposure limit (PEL) for hexavalent chromium.

Approximately one million workers are exposed to hexavalent chromium every year. OSHA cannot justify waiting to issue a safer standard when so many workers are at risk, Public Citizen said.

In March, Public Citizen and the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE) filed a lawsuit seeking to compel OSHA to end its delay in issuing a new PEL for hexavalent chromium. OSHA’s current PEL is 100 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3), a standard the agency has long acknowledged is many times higher than the level needed to protect workers from lung cancer.

The study examined measurements of hexavalent chromium exposure compiled by OSHA from 1990 to 2000. The study found there has been a decline in the number of OSHA measurements of hexavalent chromium, suggesting that the agency may not be adequately enforcing its own weak standards

The results also showed that many companies are capable of meeting a substantially lower PEL. Over the decade, 13.7 percent of readings in which hexavalent chromium was present were at or below .5 ug/m3 when averaged over an eight-hour period.

However, many other companies continue to expose their workers to significant levels of hexavalent chromium. Not only did a substantial number of companies violate OSHA’s existing standard, but median exposures to hexavalent chromium among all workplaces where the substance was detected were well above the level at which significant risks of cancer and other adverse health effects can be expected.

Hexavalent chromium is used in chrome plating, stainless steel welding and the production of chromate pigments and dyes; the plating and polishing, and airplane industries use hexavalent chromium extensively. As many as 34 percent of workers could contract lung cancer if exposed for eight hours a day, for 45 years, at OSHA’s current PEL, according to a study conducted for OSHA in 1995.

“The dangers of exposure to the chemical are widely known, and now OSHA’s own data demonstrate that, in many cases, it is technically possible to meet a safer standard. There is no reason for OSHA to delay issuing one,” said Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Health Research group and an author of the study. “We saw no decline in the average levels of exposure in workplaces over the past decade, so the government clearly needs to step in.”

In 1993, Public Citizen and PACE’s predecessor union (the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union) filed a petition with OSHA asking the agency to substantially lower the PEL for hexavalent chromium. In 1994, OSHA denied the petition, promising instead to commence rulemaking in 1995 to reduce the PEL. It didn’t.

The petitioners sued OSHA in 1997 in the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. The court ruled against the groups in 1998 in part because the agency promised to begin a regulatory proceeding in 1999. After multiple deferrals, the agency in December 2001 instead reduced the regulation of hexavalent chromium to the status of a “long-term action” and removed any date for predicted action. The petitioners in March again filed a lawsuit in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals asking the court to order OSHA to issue a new standard. (Click here to view the brief is on the Web.) After the lawsuit was filed, the agency responded by issuing a request for additional information about hexavalent chromium, an unnecessary step that at this point in the process will only lead to additional delay. The case will be argued on Nov. 5.

The study published today also found that state inspection agencies, permitted by law in some states to conduct inspections instead of OSHA, have a significantly lower rate of citation than federal regulators when overexposure to hexavalent chromium occurs. An analysis of the effectiveness of state-run inspections is urgently needed, the researchers concluded.

“Eight years ago, OSHA itself recognized that the current PEL is too high, but the agency still hasn’t lowered it,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and study co-author. “Each day that the government ignores this problem, working people across the country are needlessly being exposed to high levels of a dangerous substance. It’s inexcusable.”

Click here to view a copy of the article’s abstract on the Web.