It was one of those weeks when two seemingly unrelated topics crossed my desk. Only later did it strike me that they were connected. Both involved toxic substances and what we know about their adverse health effects. One concerned the contaminated water supply in West Virginia. The other involved a commentary by attorney Steve Wodka about a newish revision to OSHA’s chemical right-to-know regulation.
The drinking water emergency in West Virginia—thousands of gallons of MCHM (methylcyclohexanemethanol) which flowed into the water supply— has focused attention on the inadequacy of the key law for US chemicals policy, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Many residents want to know, and journalists have been asking: “how is MCHM going to affect people’s health?”
Quickly they learned the manufacturer of MCHM doesn’t have a clue about its long-term health effects. Nothing about how it might affect their kids. Nothing about effects on the offspring of those who drank it. Nothing about whether it may cause neurological problems, or cancer. There’s no law–not TSCA or any other—that even expects them to know, and there’s no law requiring them to find out. For now, we are resigned to live in a giant black hole, with far too little health information about the 80,000 chemicals that are manufactured or processed in the U.S.
As Richard Denison with the Environmental Defense Fund wrote:
“How, you might well ask, is this possible? How can a chemical in active production and use – and now being released into the environment and exposing people – be on the market without any publicly available hazard data or evidence of its safety?”
There are however, a few chemicals about which there is ample information on some of their long-term health effects, specifically whether the cause cancer. (Largely because people served as guinea pigs in their workplaces, were exposed to toxic agents, and developed cancer as a result.) Both the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the US National Toxicology Program (NTP) have sophisticated review procedures, involving panels of scientific expert, to evaluate the epidemiological data and identify compounds for their carcinogenicity. To-date, the groups have independently classified about 60 substances as known human carcinogens. They’ve also designated some substances as likely to be or possible human carcinogens; IARC lists about 400 and NTP about 200 of these suspect compounds. At least for these toxic substances, individuals who are exposed or potentially exposed are not quite as stuck in that information void.
For nearly 30 years, workers who used or came into contact with these designated or suspect carcinogens had the benefit of a cancer warning label on containers of these compounds. If IARC or NTP classified them as carcinogens, OSHA required labels on containers of them to include the cancer warning. I say had because of what I read in Steve Wodka’s commentary.
In “Explaining the Inexplicable: OSHA’s Gift to the Chemical Industry,” Wodka writes:
“Until 2012, OSHA had a rule which required that a cancer warning label be placed on a chemical if it appeared on a national or international list of cancer causing chemicals. The rule was clear, simple and easy to enforce. It was not even controversial. But it is no longer in effect.”
Wodka is referring to OSHA’s 1983 Hazard Communication standard, which was amended in March 2012 to align with the “Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals.” He points to a change between the old and the new HazCom standard that I’m embarrass to admit never made it on my radar screen. He explains:
“OSHA decided to toss this entire system overboard and return to the olden days when these disputes were settled not by the quality of the evidence, but by the number of gunslingers one could hire. Under OSHA’s new “globally harmonized system” of hazard communication, a chemical manufacturer can dispute the science on which a cancer designation had been based. When these disputes arise, OSHA, not the manufacturer, bears the burden of proof. The agency will always be outgunned by the global chemical industry and worker protection will suffer. Inexplicably, this wound was completely self-inflicted. No one demanded or petitioned OSHA to make this change.”
The whole idea for the original 1983 HazCom standard was giving workers the “right-to-know” about the chemical hazards in their workplaces, especially how the compound could affect their health. The rule’s requirements for labeling of containers—including language about any IARC or NTP cancer designation—gave workers easy access to critical hazard information. That requirement was deleted by OSHA in 2012 when it revised its HazCom regulation. I’m glad (I guess) for Steve Wodka’s commentary bringing it to my attention.
Anxiety and frustration linger among WV residents on how little is known about the chemical that contaminated their drinking water. TSCA does nothing to help them know. OSHA’s HazCom standard used to require chemical manufacturers to label carcinogenic compounds based on IARC’s and NTP’s evaluations. Now those cancer warnings are no longer required by OSHA to be on the labels.
As the public dialogue revolves around the need for more testing and more disclosure of the potential health effects of toxic chemicals, I’ll use Wodka’s term “inexplicable” to describe OSHA’s backsliding.