Workplace toxins report released

A new report released by the California Environmental Protection Agency could lead to new restrictions on the use of numerous chemicals in the workplace.

But environmentalists and one prominent Democratic legislator say the report was delayed for almost two and a half years due to political concerns. Among the findings were determinations that at least one chemical not currently regulated for workplace exposure causes cancer in most people who come into contact with it.

The “Occupational Health Hazard Assessment Project” originated in the state Department of Health Services in 2004. Under the deal, one of the divisions under DHS, the Hazard Evaluation System and Information Service, paid $51,509 to OEHHA. OEHHA was to deliver the report in mid-2005. OEHAA operates under CalEPA.

Instead, it was held up in a lengthy review process as it moved between multiple state agencies. Last summer, Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, started pressuring OEHHA to release the data. Lieber is currently carrying a bill, AB515, that calls for the state to develop permissible exposure limits for many chemicals that aren’t now regulated in the workplace.

OEHHA released the report just before Christmas, drawing a rebuke from Lieber.

“Releasing a report just before the holidays is a classic way to keep it from getting any attention,” Lieber said. She added that she still thinks the report represents “a step forward.”

The report looks at so-called “Proposition 65 chemicals.” There are scores of chemicals that are classified as known carcinogens for other types of exposure but that aren’t currently regulated in the workplace. One chemical of particular concern to environmentalists is Bis (2-chloroethyl) ether, a pesticide ingredient related to a chemical used in World War I mustard gas. According to the report, the “estimated cancer cases per 1,000” for Bis range from 730 to 940 — meaning that most people exposed at currently acceptable levels will develop cancer.

Fran Schreiberg, a pro bono attorney at Worksafe, a workplace safety advocacy organization, said she had greater concerns about other chemicals that had lower cancer risks but are used in far greater amounts within the state. She pointed to tetrachloroethlene.

Often used in dry-cleaning, it will cause 130 cancers per 1,000 exposures at currently allowed levels, according to the report.

“This stuff is used in huge amounts,” Schreiberg said. “Lots of people are exposed.”

The report has now been sent over to the California Division of Occupational Safety & Health. Suzanne Murphy, executive director at Worksafe, said she hopes the report will be used to develop new laws to protect workers.

“We have no surveillance systems in place to track these workplace cancers,” Murphy said. “So when these cancers show up 20 to 30 years later, they are not linked to the workplace and end up being paid for by society in general. With skyrocketing health care costs and limited resources, it would make sense to prevent these cancers in the first place by more effectively protecting workers from long-term exposure to the carcinogens and other toxic chemicals identified in this report.”

Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger began touting his Green Chemistry Initiative. Based on an ongoing effort by the European Union, its long-term goal is to create a database on known harmful chemicals, acceptable exposure levels and known alternatives. Environmentalists say there are numerous chemicals that are banned in Europe that are hardly regulated here.

“California is clearly behind the EU on this,” Lieber said. “The governor has said it.”

A spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council said the industry group had not yet had a chance to review the report and could not comment.

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