Study: Hexavalent Chromium Industry Kept Health Risks Secret

One week before OSHA was set to issue a new standard on acceptable workplace levels of chromium, a new study showed the chromium industry kept data from the federal government regarding health risks to workers exposed to the potentially hazardous chemical.

Public Citizen and the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services found evidence of the manipulation in documents that surfaced following the bankruptcy of the Industrial Health Foundation, a chromium industry-funded group.

"Polluters and manufacturers of dangerous products should not be permitted to hide data that are important for protecting the public's health," said Dr. David Michaels, director SKAPP and lead author of the report.

"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 or provided to the rulemaking agency by the regulated industry," said Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group and report co-author.

Calls made to the Specialty Steel Industry of North America, a trade association who cooperates with the International Chromium Development Association, were not immediately returned.

In 1997, the chromium industry commissioned a study that would combine the mortality data at four sites two in the United States and two in Germany. The study, completed in 2002, showed a significantly elevated risk of lung cancer death when workers were exposed to lower levels of hexavalent chromium. The study protocol explained that multiple study sites were necessary to gain sufficient statistical power. According to the Public Citizen, the industry never published this four-site study, nor did it provide the findings to OSHA. Public Citizen did so in June 2005.

Hexavalent Chromium Standard Due Feb. 28

OSHA is under court order to issue a new standard by the end of this month. Despite having completed just such a study in 2002, the chromium industry did not notify OSHA of the study's existence. In addition, industry-funded researchers manipulated the data to obscure the evidence that hexavalent chromium was carcinogenic at lower exposures, according to the Public Citizen.

A federal appeals court granted OSHA a 6-week extension on Jan. 17 in issuing a final hexavalent chromium rule because of "unanticipated delays" resulting from its participation in the response to Hurricane Katrina. The new deadline is set for Feb. 28.

An OSHA spokesperson told OccupationalHazards.com that the agency is focused on issuing a final rule and fully expects to meet its set deadline.

OSHA estimates 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.

The dangers of hexavalent chromium were brought to the public's attention when the topic hit the silver screen in the 2000 movie Erin Brokovich a true story about a single mother who acted as an investigator for an attorney who filed a class-action lawsuit against a utility company accused of quietly trying to buy land contaminated with hexavalent chromium it was illegally dumping.

Currently, OSHA regulations include a provision that would lower the PEL for hexavalent chromium from 52 to 1 microgram per cubic meter of air. Public Citizen is urging OSHA to restrict the level to 0.25 microgram per cubic meter.

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