Study: Workers Are Exposed to High Levels of Hexavalent Chromium

Where's Erin Brockovich when you need her? According to a new study, workers continue to be exposed to hexavalent chromium, a known lung carcinogen, at their jobs and exposure levels do not appear to be decreasing.

Brockovich crusaded in California on behalf of residents who were exposed to hexavalent chromium and helped win a $333 million settlement from Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) on their behalf. The settlement did not include PG&E workers, and according to the study, it probably should.

Approximately 1 million workers are exposed to hexavalent chromium every year. A Public Citizen study published in the November issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found 21 percent of measurements of hexavalent chromium taken at workplaces violated OSHA's 8-hour permissible exposure limit (PEL).

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 standards.

"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."

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 8-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.

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.

"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."

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