EPA left chromium hazard report unpublished for five years

A Washington pressure group has used the Freedom of Information Act to release a five year old Environmental Protection Agency & Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health report into the hazards of hexavalent chromium. The study showed lung cancer rates almost doubled in plant workers exposed to the chemical.

At a press conference on July 11th, Dr Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group said, “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. 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this study were first presented publicly five years ago, yet the EPA and Johns Hopkins permitted the results to remain unpublished even as hundreds of workers unnecessarily contracted and died from lung cancer. This is public health irresponsibility on a grand scale.”

Erin Brockovich, who has become a household name after the success of the Hollywood film about her struggle to compensate residents exposed to hexavalent chromium groundwater contamination, joined the press conference by telephone.

Chromium is a naturally occurring metallic element that can be found in water and in soil and rocks. The most common forms are trivalent and hexavalent. Although the trivalent form shows very low toxicity, both the federal and California EPA have designated hexavalent chromium a carcinogen.

The major illnesses associated with occupational exposure to hexavalent chromium are lung cancer and dermatoses. OSHA estimates that approximately one million workers are regularly exposed to hexavalent chromium. It’s main uses are as a structural and anti-corrosive element in the production of stainless steel, ferrochromium, iron and steel, and in electroplating, welding and painting.

In a 1993 petition and a 1997 lawsuit, Public Citizen and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) 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. The chromium industry has insisted that no regulation take place until after publication of the present study.

The study is due to be published in the August issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. It included 2,357 men who began working at a chromate production plant in Baltimore, Maryland, 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 including smoking.

Public Citizen is a non-profit, consumer research and advocacy organisation, founded by Ralph Nader and Dr. Sidney Wolfe in 1971. The Health Research Group is its health arm and petitions and testifies before Congress and federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, on issues such as drug safety, health and safety at work and safer medical devices.

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