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Fire Departments, Airports and Military Bases May Be More Toxic to Workers Than You Think

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elizabeth grossmanDrinking water supplies for at least six million Americans contain toxic industrial chemicals at levels that exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recommended safety limit. This number is likely an underestimate since the information available through the EPA does not include data for about one-third of Americans—those 100 million or more people who rely on private wells or the vast majority of public water systems that serve communities with populations of 10,000 or less. These are the conclusions of a new study whose authors include scientists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the University of California at Berkeley and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

The study “is just showing us the tip of the iceberg,” says author Philippe Grandjean, Harvard T.H. Chan adjunct professor of environmental health and University of Southern Denmark professor of environmental medicine. What also remains largely undocumented is the extent of exposure to workers on the frontline of this chemical use.

While industrial sites were previously recognized as sources of these highly fluorinated, toxic and environmentally-persistent compounds, this is the first nationwide study to document that wastewater treatment plants, along with military bases and airports where these chemicals are used in fire-fighting foams, are also contributing significantly to drinking water contamination. The study reports groundwater and surface water near some of these bases and airports with concentrations of these chemicals 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the EPA’s health advisory level for drinking water.

While the EPA’s May 2016 fact sheet says, “Such contamination is typically localized and associated with a specific facility for example, an industrial facility where these chemicals were produced or used to manufacture other products or an airfield at which they were used for fire fighting,” the new study shows the contamination is much more widespread. The study’s findings suggest that not only are far more people potentially exposed through drinking water than previously thought, but that the military bases and airports where these fluorinated foams are used may be hotspots of exposure. This means that in addition to runoff from these sites, exposure to those working with these foams may be a health concern, as suggested by recent testing that showed firefighters to have elevated blood levels of fluorinated compounds.

What are PFAS?

These synthetic chemicals (they don’t occur naturally) known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are used in waterproofing, stain and grease-resistant and non-stick coatings. They’re used in clothing, furniture, carpets, paints and food packaging, among other products. They are also used in plastics and computer chip manufacturing, and in the fire-fighting foams used in military trainings and at airports. These compounds have been so widely used over the past 60 years that theU.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found these chemicals in the blood of more than 97 percent of the Americans tested. These chemicals have also been found in newborns’ umbilical cord blood, an indication of prenatal exposure.

Given the well-recognized potential environmental and health hazards of PFAS and widespread exposure, the EPA has recently lowered its drinking water health advisory limit for PFAS.  But this is a guideline, not an enforceable standard. The six PFAS compounds that the EPA is now monitoring in drinking water standards are part of the agency’s Unregulated Contaminated Monitoring Rule program. This requires participating public water systems to monitor for certain contaminants and report on their presence. But it doesn’t require public water systems to ensure that the health advisory levels aren’t exceeded.

“Most wastewater treatment plants don’t remove these compounds,” explains study author Cindy Hu, doctoral candidate in environmental health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“We’re concerned about these chemicals because they’ve been linked to a wide range of adverse health effects. And drinking water can be an important source of exposure,” says Hu.

Various PFAS have been linked to certain cancers, elevated cholesterol, immune suppression, obesity, low birth weight, reproductive system problems and hormone disruption. Levels of PFAS found in the environment have also been linked tosuppressed immune systems in children.

“These compounds are incredibly stable, so they can leach into the groundwater over many years and they stay there,” says Grandjean.

“Their half life is on the order of several years,” explained study co-author Laurel Schaider, research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute. “If you stopped being exposed, it would take a couple of years to reduce levels in your body by half,” said Schaider.

For this reason, says Grandjean, “Even the small contributions”–or exposures–“are what we worry about.”

Even though the EPA recently lowered what it considers a safe limit in drinking water, Grandjean worries that this level is not sufficiently protective.

“Unfortunately, I have to say, the EPA water limits are way, way too high,” he says. The concern is the large “number of people that are exposed to levels that we can see are associated with adverse effects on the immune system and carry risks of miscarriage,” he explains. These are, he says, “levels that we’re not protecting people against.”

Workers on the frontline

The fact that so people are likely exposed to PFAS through drinking water at levels of concern to scientists raises additional concerns for people–like firefighters– regularly exposed on the job.

Existing studies examining firefighters for the presence of perfluorinated compounds in their blood have shown elevated exposure after responding to fires. A study of California firefighters found such levels to be three times higher than that of American men tested by the CDC. That these compounds persist in the body and can produce adverse effects at low levels makes cumulative exposures a concern. For female firefighters there’s the additional concern that these chemicals can be passed on to a fetus or infant.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, there are about 19,299 airports in the United States, a number that includes both military and civilian airports. And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are an estimated 137,300 U.S. workers employed in aircraft maintenance. But, to date, beyond the studies looking at blood concentrations of PFAS in firefighters, the limited occupational exposure studies for PFAS have largely been of workers at plants that manufacture these chemicals. And most such studies have been conducted or commissioned by companies producing the chemicals. Some ofthese studies have linked exposure to high blood cholesterol. Others have found links between exposure and some increased risk of prostate cancer. But overall, the industry-commissioned studies say there is not yet sufficient evidence to establish a causal link between PFAS exposure and adverse human health effects.

Yet, says Schaider, the studies that might begin to link PFAS exposure to specific health outcomes in fire fighters and others using these foams haven’t been done. Some are now just getting underway, through the International Association of Fire Fighters, which is examining impacts of these fire-fighting foams on women fire fighters. But she says, “Unfortunately, I don’t think this has been addressed yet.”

And while there is ample documentation of “highly polluted water” at airports and military bases where PFAS are used, “epidemiological data on the military is hard to come by,” says study author Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute.

The solution? For one, says Blum, “The military needs to needs to investigate alternative fire-fighting foams that don’t contain any highly fluorinated compounds.”

“My key message,” says Grandjean, is that because these chemicals “are so persistent and we are discovering more and more effects at lower doses, we need to vigorously reduce these exposures.” And, he says, for people “who’ve been exposed over a long time, exposures should get as close to zero as possible.”

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on August 11, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American,Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

 


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This New Rule Will Make Information About On-the-Job Injuries at Dangerous Workplaces Public

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elizabeth grossmanMore than 3 million U.S. workers suffer a workplace injury or illness every year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—numbers that are thought to be significantly underreported. But astonishingly, little or no information about at which workplaces these occur is made available to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency responsible for enforcing U.S. workplace safety. Neither is this information made public.

But under a new rule OSHA has just announced, employers in “high-hazard” industries will have to send this information directly to OSHA for posting on the agencies website. The rule also includes provisions to protect workers who report job-related injuries and illnesses from employer retaliation.

“Most people don’t realize that many employers don’t send this information to OSHA,” explained David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, on a call with reporters. “Just as public disclosure of their kitchens’ sanitary conditions encourages restaurant owners to improve food safety, OSHA expects that public disclosure of work injury data will encourage employers to increase their efforts to prevent work-related injuries and illnesses,” said Michaels. “High injury rates are a sign of poor management.”

The new rule will also “help workers choose safer workplaces,” Michaels explained. “If you are looking for a new job, would you want to work at an establishment where you have a high likelihood of being injured?”

“More attention to safety will save life and limbs,” he added.

The rule, which has been several years in the making, was greeted with enthusiasm by labor advocates. “The new OSHA recordkeeping rule,” said National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) acting executive Director Jessica Martinez in a statement, “is an important step towards transparency. By requiring electronic submissions every quarter and making the data public, this common-sense regulation will help us learn more about how workers are hurt and become sick on the job.”

In his statement, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said, “We are pleased that the new rules also include important protections to ensure that workers can report injuries without fear of retaliation. For far too long, in an effort to keep reported injury rates low, employers have retaliated against workers for reporting injuries, disciplining them for every injury or creating barriers to reporting.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, however, called the rule “misguided,” saying “the agency’s excessive reporting requirements will lead to employers being falsely branded as unsafe and will not reflect a company’s commitment to maintaining a safe workplace.” The new requirements, said the National Association of Manufacturers, “could lead to public shaming.” Both business groups said the rule would create burdens for employers and expressed concern that it would lead to the release of proprietary information.

What does the rule require?

In fact the new rule does not require employers to collect additional information. Rather, it requires employers—only in what OSHA considers the most dangerous industries – to send OSHA information they’re already required to collect. These industries include agriculture, construction, forestry, hospitals, manufacturing that includes oil, gas and chemical plants as well as and food processing, and trucking.

“It does not add to or change employers’ obligations,” said Michaels.

As for the concern about the release of confidential data, Michaels explained that “before OSHA posts any information, it will remove any personal information.”

The rule, which becomes effective on August 10, will be phased in over the next two years with its first reporting due to OSHA in July 2017. Reporting requirements vary slightly depending on workplace size, but the rule will apply to all employers, except for those with less than twenty employees.

Having workplace injury and illness information reported directly to OSHA will help the agency “improve safety without additional inspections,” said Michaels. This data will help OSHA better “target” its limited enforcement resources, he explained.

Currently, OSHA has about 2,200 inspectors—some of these through state agencies—that are responsible for some 130 million workers at more than 8 million workplaces across the country. That means that there’s about one OSHA inspector for every 60,000 workers. The information OSHA gets about workplace injuries and illnesses under the new rule will help point OSHA toward where workers are most at risk.

For example, “We looked at the variation in injury rates in the same industry [but] in different establishments in the same city and found huge variations,” Michaels explained on a call with In These Times. In one North Carolina city, OSHA found that workers at one nursing home had a 1 in 45 chance of injury but a 1 in 9 chance of being injured at another, he explained. “We’re really trying to stress that workers have a right to know this. We think publication of this record will make employers work hard to improve,” said Michaels.

Protection against retaliation

While workers already have the right to report job-related injuries and illnesses, they are often discouraged from doing so—particularly at workplaces without union or other such representation. Under the new rule, retaliating against a worker for reporting a workplace injury or illness would be a violation of OSHA’s recordkeeping requirements, eliminating some potential complications for workers and for OSHA in responding to retaliation.

“We have workers who reported an injury and then were fired. This happens a lot,” explained Massachusetts Coalition for Safety and Health (MassCOSH) executive director Marcy Goldstein-Gelb. There’s also the issue of workers who fear for their immigration status if they take full advantage of their rights and speak out about injuries, she added.

Retaliation can also take the form of blaming the worker for the injury, United Steelworkers director of health, safety and environment Mike Wright explained. Michaels explained there were cases where injured workers were cited for “lack of situational awareness.”

Goldstein-Gelb and Wright both said the new rule would enable OSHA to take more protective action with fewer reporting complications for workers. Previously, retaliation cases could “only be handled as retaliation” cases, said Wright. “Now we can challenge this directly,” as a reporting violation, he said. In theory, the new rule should also make it easier for workers without union representation to report retaliation.

Retaliation against injury reporting “is widespread in the poultry industry,” says Oliver Gottfried, Oxfam America senior advocacy and collaborations advisor in a statement. “Poultry companies,” he explains, “use a variety of measures to deliberately avoid reporting injuries on their logs.” He welcomes the new rule but says it alone won’t “address the problem of widespread underreporting of injuries.”

Discouraging programs that discourage reporting

While the new rule doesn’t address such programs directly, OSHA says it should also help discourage are programs many employers have had that actively reward workers for not reporting job-related injuries and illnesses. According to examples provided by OSHA, these have included programs that put extra money in workers paychecks or given them gift cards and t-shirts for going certain number of days without reported injuries. One such program included drawings for flat-screen TVs. Another was described as “safety bingo” with monetary prizes.

Such programs have also been designed so that workers discourage each other from reporting injuries as the whole workplace loses out on rewards for injuries reported. Wright tells a story of a workplace where a worker was intimidated by co-workers who didn’t want to lose out on one of these programs so did not report slipping, falling and breaking his arm—only to have another co-worker later slip in the same place and suffer a head injury.

Eliminating fear of reporting and enabling OSHA to enforce non-reporting under this new rule could undercut such programs.

“The value of having this information is just enormous. Companies hate to have that dirty laundry aired,” says Wright. He explains that simply requiring companies to report adverse outcomes—as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did with polluters in the 1980s—has a big impact. “Just the fact that companies can’t hide this stuff,” could make an important different, he says. And Wright adds, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on May 17, 2016. Reprinted with permission. 

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.


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U.S. To Increase Worker Protection From Deadly Silica Dust for First Time in More Than 40 Years

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elizabeth grossmanFor the first time in 45 years, the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is poised to increase safety standards for worker exposure to the silica dust that can cause deadly and incurable lung disease. A rule that would cut in half the amount of silica dust to which most workers could be exposed—and limit levels further for construction and maritime workers—is expected to be finalized in February.

The industries that must comply with the new rule hoped to derail the new standard, including with an amendment to the 2016 federal spending bill that would have prevented any spending to implement the new rules and required more study of silica’s health effects. While in the bill up to the eleventh hour, this rider has been dropped from the budget released late Tuesday that is expected to be voted on later this week.

According to OSHA, silica exposure is a serious threat to nearly 2 million U.S. workers, including more than 100,000 whose jobs involve stone cutting, rock drilling and blasting and foundry work. Workers installing and manufacturing countertops are also at risk, along with those at hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—sites where industrial sand is used in oil and gas extraction and has been found to expose workers excessively. OSHA estimates that the new safety limits will save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis each year. OSHA also estimates that when fully implemented, the rule would result in annual financial benefits of $2.8 to $4.7 billion, benefits that far exceed the rule’s annual costs.

“It’s often been said it’s a disease that’s been known since antiquity. The fact that silica causes cancer is more recent information,” Mike Wright, United Steelworkers director of health and safety, tells In These Times. “There’s no question the new standard would save lives. The longer it takes to get into place, the more people are exposed,” says Wright.

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has considered crystalline silica—particles small enough to inhale—a human lung carcinogen since 1997. The U.S. National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens classified respirable silica as a known human carcinogen in 2000. In addition to lung cancer, inhaled silica dust can cause silicosis, a serious, incurable and potentially fatal lung disease. In the lungs, silica dust can scar lung tissue and reduce lungs’ ability to process oxygen and increase susceptibility to other lung diseases, including tuberculosis.

OSHA’s existing silica standard, what’s known as a permissible exposure level, has not been updated since the agency was established. The Department of Labor’s concern about these exposures goes back to the 1930s when Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins sounded the alarm about silicosis’ toll on American workers. The new rule, which would cut most workers’ permissible exposure levels to 50 micrograms per cubic meter over the course of an 8-hour workday from the currently allowed 100, was proposed in 2013. It followed reviews begun in 2003 by both the Department of Labor and Small Business Administration. Now, after public comment periods and meetings with industry and labor groups, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is ready to finalize the rule.

Blocking the new standard?

Despite this long history, support from the Department of Labor and research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) showing ongoing adverse affects of silica, industry groups mounted vigorous opposition to the new safety standard. An amendment or rider to what’s known as the omnibus spending bill—the legislation that will fund the federal government’s 2016 budget—was introduced by Senator John Hoeven (R-North Dakota). (North Dakota is among the states with the most fracking sites.) It would have stopped the Department of Labor from spending any money to implement the new silica rule and, among other measures, called for a new study by the National Academy of Sciences to justify the reduced exposure level.

“The Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s (OSHA’s) proposal to reduce the current exposure limit is not supported by sound science and will create a tremendous financial burden for many industrial sectors,” said the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association in a statement posted to its website.

The association is among the industry groups and companies that have lobbied the White House on this issue, trying to persuade the administration that existing regulations are sufficient and that more stringent standards would be burdensome to business. Between March 2011 and 2014, OMB meeting records show 11 meetings about occupational exposure to crystalline silica. All but one were with industry groups.

In an emailed statement, Sen. Hoeven’s office explained that the amendment “would not only ensure that the latest science is used by OSHA, but also that the agency conducts a long-overdue study of the impact of current silica regulations on small businesses,” noting that the most recent Small Business Administration report on silica was completed in 2003 and that silica-related deaths dropped 93 percent between 1968 and 2007.

But as NIOSH itself has written:

There are no surveillance data in the U.S. that permit us to estimate accurately the number of individuals with silicosis. The true extent of the problem is probably greater than indicated by available data. Undercounting of silicosis occurs because there are no national medical monitoring surveillance programs, and there can be a failure to diagnose silicosis or record it as a cause of death on a death certificate. Silicosis often presents long after workers have left causative jobs. Such cases may not be detected in Bureau of Labor statistics as occupational disease and will not be detected if disease presents after retirement.

“We’re talking about people’s lives,” says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Center for Science and Democracy. “What gets lost in so many of these discussions is that this is fundamentally about public health and safety protections that are genuinely in the public interest. They’re not going to be done by businesses on their own,” says Rosenberg.

“If you wait for this kind of evidence people will be dead,” he noted of one of the rider’s requirements.

But, says National Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health acting executive director Jessica Martinez, striking a note of hope via email, “Given the overwhelming evidence about the hazards of silica, we are hopeful that the final budget agreed to by the White House and Congress will not interfere with OSHA’s scientifically sound, economically practical new silica standard.” Her wish was realized in the budget bill agreement reached last night that dropped the rider.

Additional riders’ impact on public and occupational health

But this is not the only amendment attached to the budget bill that would affect public and occupational health. Among the riders that would prevent environmental protections from being advanced is one that could keep scientists who receive federal research grants from serving on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) science advisory boards. This could, for example, exclude scientists whose research is funded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. Another budget provision could add additional delays to regulation of harmful chemicals by requiring EPA to replicate science studies submitted as part of chemical assessments.

Both of these riders essentially replicate bills introduced last year by House Republicans that the OMB recommended the president veto. While on the surface both sound reasonable, close reading shows they could easily result in achieving the opposite of what they claim to. Versions of both appear to remain in the budget bill that will go to the full House for a vote.

“The SAB rider,” explains UCS’s Rosenberg, “tips the scale even further in the direction of industry by twisting the concept of conflict of interest on its head. It says that academics who get money from government grants have a conflict but industry-supported scientists don’t.”

And as the Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Daniel Rosenberg explains further via email, “The rider attempts to hold EPA hostage by halting all Science Advisory Board activities until EPA changes its policies”—and has these changes vetted by a Government Accountability Office report. Both riders could affect all future chemical regulation and how federal occupational protection standards are set.

So what’s likely to happen?

“We’re all hoping for a ‘clean’ budget bill,” said Wright earlier this week. The bill that emerged Tuesday night is not exactly ‘clean,’ and how these riders play out, assuming the bill passes in the form currently available, remains to be seen. According to The Hill, the House is expected to pass an additional stop-gap spending measure today, to keep the government funded through December 22nd with a vote on the $1.1 trillion budget bill anticipated on Friday of this week.

But when it comes to silica, “Millions of workers will breathe easier,” says Martinez, “if this important new rule goes into effect as planned this coming February.”

About the Author: The author’s name is Elizabeth Grossman. Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on December 16, 2015. Reprinted with permission.


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