Last month, 35,000 workers exposed to benzene -- a chemical known to cause leukemia at higher doses -- were told by the Supreme Court that the government (OSHA) had not provided enough evidence of significant risks to their health to justify reducing their exposure to benzene from the current standard of 10 parts per million down to 1 ppm. The Supreme Court decision was the result of a petrochemical industry lawsuit against OSHA to block the standard.
What OSHA and the Supreme Court did not know -- because the industry had withheld important new evidence form the government -- was that workers at Dow Chemical Co. exposed to less than 10 parts per million had been found by the company's own scientists to have a significant increase in damaged chromosomes.
The results of the study on workers in Freeport, Tex., by Dow genetic toxicologist Dr. Dante Picciano had been written up by June 1977 and sent to three outside Dow consultants who generally agreed with the findings. One consultant, Dr. Marvin Legator, director of environmental toxicology and epidemiology at the University of Texas Medical Schoolat Galveston, has said that "because of the serious implications for worker health, there is no question that the study should have been immediately sent to the government." By July, Picciano's supervisor, Dr. D.J. Kilian, had sent the study to Dow's biomedical research director, Dr. Benjamin Holder, in Midland, Mich., with a memo that stated that the study "identifies an unsuspected occupational health hazzard" and recommended forwarding the results to the government. But in August 1977, when Dow testified at OSHA's benzene standard-setting hearings, the witnesses, including Dow Texas medical director, Dr. John Venable, who had reviewed the study in Une, failed to mention anything about chromosomal damage at exposures below 10 ppm and concluded that the old standard "will continue to protect our employees against any ill effects from benzene exposure."
Not until March 1, 1978, after OSHA had published the final benzene standard and it was too late for inclusion of new data in the administrative record or the subsequent court reviews, did Dr. Holder finally send the study to the Enviromental Protection Agency, stating that Dow had found a "statistically significant increase in [chromosomal] aberrations" in 52 workers whose average benzene exposure the company said was between 2 and 10 parts per million. Twenty-three percent of these workers had chromosomal abnormalities in comparison with only 2.3 percent in comparable Dow workers not exposed to benzene. In other words, chromosomal abnormalities occured 10 times more commonly in those workers exposed to less thatn 10 parts per million of benzene, the current "safe" standard that Dow had said would "protect against any ill effects."
Dow has told the government the reason it "delayed sending in the study was because it did not know what amount of benzene the affected workers had been exposed to, but the average levels at later reported to EPA in March 1978 were the same as those listed in Picciano's report of June 1977.
It is admittedly unclear how many workers with damaged chromosomes will get cancer or will have children with birth defects or mutations. But no worker, given an informed choice, would opt for damaged chomosomes instead of healthy ones, especially with the mounting evidence of increased rates of cancer in people with certain kinds of chromosomal abnormalities.
Given that critical evidence was withheld from OSHA, it is difficult to blame the agency for not doing a better job of quantifying risks under 10 ppm. But now that OSHA has the industry data it should have had much earlier, its director, Dr. Eula Bingham, has said the government will reinitiate the process of lowering the standard to one part per million in order to protect 35,000 workers from being harmed by benzene.
The example of benzene show the conflicting roles industry plays in occupational regulation. Chemical companies have failed to gather or have withheld from OSHA evidence that would strengthen the case for a lower work place standard. Yet when the standard is finalized, industry usually has sued OSHA to block its implementation, arguing that there is inadequate evidence of risk. Ironicaly, while all this is occuring, industry continues to attack OSHA for not adequately protecting workers. Industry thus has both the ability to cripple the collection and prompt dissemination of important health data and the seemingly unlimited tax-deductible financial resources to sue OSHA to stop every standard.
As long as this death grip continues, industry will be able to make its allegation that OSHA is not adequately protecting workers a self-fulfilling prophecy.