Nearly 300 workers died in the 11 years a tighter occupational exposure standard was stalled in the US. Researchers looked at the impact of a delay in reducing the US occupational exposure limit for benzene from 10 parts per million (ppm) to 1 ppm. In 1977, the US workplace safety regulator, OSHA, the new tighter exposure standard was issued by OSHA, only to be challenged successfully in the courts by the industry lobby body the American Petroleum Institute (API). The courts ruled that OSHA must produce more evidence to justify the lower exposure ceiling. It was only in 1988 that this limit was finally introduced. OSHA scientists calculated that the delay in implementation of the standard lead to 198 deaths from leukaemia, 77 deaths from multiple myeloma, plus other benzene related deaths that would not have occurred if the safer standard had been in place. The petroleum industry has known for decades that benzene, one of its most important products, is a potent cause of cancer in humans but has spent millions on a cover-up, an evidence database compiled in 2014 revealed. Internal memorandums, emails, letters and meeting minutes obtained by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) in a year-long investigation suggested that America’s oil and chemical titans, coordinated by their trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, spent at least $36 million on research “designed to protect member company interests,” as one 2000 API summary put it.
PF Infante and MV DiStasio. Occupational benzene exposure: Preventable deaths, The Lancet, volume 1, number 8599, pages 1399-1400, 18 June 1988. Also see: Benzene standard case history from Late lessons from early warnings, EEA, 2001.
A US analysis found influential chemical exposure limits developed by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) were heavily influenced by the industries producing and using the chemicals. It found that for more than 1 in 6 substances relied heavily on corporate data that had never been independently verified. The authors found unpublished corporate communications were important in developing TLVs [Threshold Limit Values] for 104 substances; for 15 of these, the TLV documentation was based solely on such information. The paper notes: “Efforts to obtain written copies of this unpublished material were mostly unsuccessful. Case studies on the TLV Committee’s handling of lead and seven carcinogens illustrate various aspects of corporate influence and interaction with the committee. Corporate representatives listed officially as “consultants” since 1970 were given primary responsibility for developing TLVs on proprietary chemicals of the companies that employed them (Dow, DuPont).” It concludes “that an ongoing international effort is needed to develop scientifically based guidelines to replace the TLVs in a climate of openness and without manipulation by vested interests.”
BI Castleman and GE Ziem. Corporate influence on Threshold Limit Values, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, volume 13, issue 5, pages 531-559, 1988.
The authors confirm previous evidence that grinding operations with water-based cutting fluids increased the risk for stomach cancer and they provide some evidence that exposures to straight oil-cutting fluids increases the risk for pancreatic cancer. In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) remains under criticism for its failure to act on the cancer risks posed by mineral oils (see Hazards, 2012).
M Silverstein, R Park, M Marmor, N Maizlish, and F Mirer. Mortality among bearing plant workers exposed to metalworking fluids and abrasives, Journal of Occupational Medicine, volume 30, number 9, pages 706-714, 1988.
Swedish researchers who compared the solvent exposure of167 men with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma with 140 men of similar age and background how did not, found that 31 per cent of those with the cancer had been regularly exposed to solvents compared to 14 per cent who had not. The authors conclude that because solvent exposure at work “may be relevant to the development of other malignant diseases… our data support the opinion that occupational exposure to organic solvents should be minimised.”
H Olsson and L Brandt. Risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among men occupationally exposed to organic solvents, Scandinavian Journal of Work Environment and Health, volume 14, number 4, pages 246-251, 1988.
UK communications giant British Telecom and NCU (now part of CWU), the union representing its engineers, had a long-running dispute over the risks posed by ‘man made mineral fibres’ (MMMF). The union questioned a company “assurances about the absence of risk,” which led BT to commission two external scientists to assess the evidence, both of which concluded the fibres posed no serious risk. One, Dr Robert Murray, noted strayed from a scientific analysis of the evidence, instead accusing unions of stirring up unjustified concern about fibre risks. He noted: “The subject of fibres has in the past been so charged with emotion that there is little hope of a detached scientific view being taken. This is evident from the literature provided by the other unions, especially the GMBATU [now GMB], which is full of selective quotation, misrepresentation and downright errors and is illuminated by the benefit of hindsight.” He added: “I think that existing evidence is sufficient to demonstrate the problem of MMMF is an industrial relations one rather than a medical one.” Murray was later discredited after it was revealed he had worked as a hired gun for the asbestos industry. The MMMF health concerns at BT led NCU to introduce a ban on work with MMMF in the mid-1980s, which remained in force until January 1987 when the union negotiated safety improvements. Roger Darlington, the NCU’s health and safety officer, said a recent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statement on lung cancer risks linked to asbestos “vindicates the union position.” Within six years, the US safety authorities had fought of industry challenges and had mineral fibres added to the list of cancer-causing substances in the official Annual Report of Carcinogens [see: Industry sparks controversy over glass fibre and cancer, 1994].
BT v NCU: Cancer, Hazards, number 17, February 1988.
The UK’s occupational exposure standards for hazardous substances frequently lag way behind those elsewhere. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is particularly remiss on occupational carcinogens, according to Hazards magazine. “The HSE has no overall policy on carcinogens,” it notes. Whereas US and Swedish authorities had called for exposures to carcinogens to be reduced as far as is technically feasible, HSE “will not even indicate if a substance is suspect.”
Substandards: Some HSE recommended limits compared to other standards, Hazards, number 16, December 1987.
A major chemical producer challenged a study raising cancer concerns about occupational exposure to the solvent Dimethylformamide (DMF) – but relied on an internal study it had not published in its defence. DMF has been used widely in laboratories, the manufacture of synthetic textiles and artificial leather, as a solvent for dyes and pigments and in other processes including the production of resins, rubbers and polymers. US researchers, prompted by concerns raised by the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union, investigated three cases of testicular cancer that had occurred at a leather tannery. All three workers had been involved in dyeing the leather and had worked in the tannery for several years. The authors concluded the cases could be linked to DMF exposure. It followed an earlier study which linked two cases of testicular cancer to DMF exposure. A response to the union-spurred article from US chemical giant DuPont, a major user of DMF, challenged the findings, saying the company’s own study of exposed workers found no excess of testicular cancer. The DuPont study’s findings were unpublished however. The US government’s workplace health research agency, NIOSH, had previously recommended an investigation into the possible cancer causing properties of DMF.
S Levin and others. Testicular cancer in leather tanners exposed to dimethylformamide, The Lancet, volume 330, number 8568, page 1153, 14 November 1987.
JL Chen and GL Kennedy, Dimethylformamide and testicular cancer (reply), The Lancet, page 55, volume 331, numbers 8575-8576, 9 January 1988.
Also see NIOSH September 1990 summary of the studies.
The UK encouraged the use of diesel-exhaust belching Free Steering Vehicles (FSVs) in UK coal mines, at a time US authorities and unions were discouraging their use because of a potential cancer link. ‘Unstitching the pit rules’, a feature in hazards magazine, notes: “The Mines Inspectorate’s view is that FSVs could help to reduce the accident rate in haulage, but neither British Coal nor the Inspectorate seem to have seriously considered the health hazard of diesel exhaust fumes. The [US] National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as long ago as 1976 that diesel powered vehicles should not be introduced further into US coal mines. NIOSH was concerned about the known cancer-causing agents in diesel exhaust emissions and the potentially serious health effects of exhaust emissions combined with coal dust. The United Mineworkers of America have banned diesel FSVs from all union-organised mines.” In June 2012, IARC rated diesel exhaust as a group 1 human carcinogen.
Unstitching the pit rules, Hazards, number 14, June 1987.
This paper considers that animal cancer tests could not predict absolute cancer risk in humans. It argues that natural carcinogens exist in food and drink at higher levels than those such as pesticides in work and wider environments and says these present minimal risks.
Ames BN, R Magaw, and LS Gold. Ranking possible carcinogenic hazards, Science, volume 236, number 4799, pages 271–280, 17 April 1987.
A lung cancer expert who was a regular visitor to a UK chromium plant and who was heavily involved in official expert reviews of the high lung cancer risk posed by chromium compounds, neglected to point out this association to the workers in the factory. Dr P Lesley Bidstrup was not only a member of the government’s Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC), she had regular contact with workers at the Eaglescliffe plant of British Chrome and Chemicals. But the 500 workers were unaware she had published extensively on the deadly lung cancer risk in the industry. Dr Bidstrup has spent more than 30 years monitoring the health of workers in the UK chrome industry and had reported a lung cancer incidence 3.6 times the norm. A report she co-authored in 1956 concluded lung cancer was an occupational disease in the chrome industry. The plant was the recipient of dozens of Health and Safety Executive (HSE) improvement notices in the 1970s. Modifications were made, with Dr Bidstrup writing in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine in the late 1970s that these resulted in “an appreciable reduction of the excess risk from lung cancer.” It was only in the 1980s that unions at the plant became aware of this cancer risk, organising training courses and pressing for improvements. Hazards magazine noted: “Publishing articles in prestigious scientific journals may be very good for the authors, but results of research need to be in the hands of workers for real improvements to be made.”
Chrome: Dazzling but deadly, Hazards, number 12, January 1987.
PL Bidstrup and RAM Case. Carcinoma of the lung in workmen in the bichromates-producing industry in Great Britain, British Journal of Industrial Medicine, volume 13, pages 260-264, 1956.