Professional Associations Comment on Benzene Study

The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) are using a recent study indicating that benzene can be harmful at levels lower than the OSHA-mandated permissible exposure limit (PEL) to call for a review of the PEL-setting process and to applaud occupational health and safety research efforts, while the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine wants to see more studies.

The study, published in Science magazine, shows that even minimal exposure to benzene at levels below that of the PEL set by OSHA caused significant changes in the blood including a decrease in white blood cells of 240 workers who work at a shoe factory in China. The benzene exposure also negatively impacted progenitor cells (platelets), which are crucial to the formation of blood cells.

ASSE President Gene Barfield, CSP, noted that his association has been calling for a "reasonable process" to update PELs to take into account advances in understanding exposure limits. The current PEL for benzene was adopted by OSHA in 1987.

He further added that ASSE "is disappointed that work towards a stakeholder agreement on an update approach appears not to be moving forward at this time. We know that Representative [Charles] Norwood R, Ga., chair of the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee, has done everything he can to encourage the stakeholders involved to develop consensus on an approach to updates. ASSE hopes that, if the work of the stakeholders cannot continue, that Chairman Norwood consider legislation that would move forward PEL updates beginning with those where there is the widest consensus among stakeholders."

Peter O'Neil, CAE, AIHA assistant executive director, noted that while AIHA has not had the opportunity to review the new benzene study, the association "applauds the efforts of those individuals who make it their life's work to ensure safe work environments and challenge current thoughts and ideas about workplace safety. As industrial hygienists, AIHA members are committed to finding solutions to worker health and safety issues and to preventing that which is possible to foresee. This study, and others like it, provide important benchmarks in developing sound science to make rational, fact-based decisions."

Dr. Scott D. Phillips, chair of ACOEM's Occupational and Clinical Toxicology Committee and a toxicologist at the University of Colorado's Health Science Center, urged caution when faced with the results of one study. "What we like to see are multiple studies done at different times by different researchers," he said.

He called the study "intriguing," adding, "We certainly need more studies in this area to really confirm the results."

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