Greenwire

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

TOXICS

OSHA defends its beryllium standard

Occupational Safety and Health Administration head Jonathan Snare said last week that it is impossible to tell whether any of the agency's employees have tested positive for beryllium exposure because all 301 OSHA inspectors have not yet been evaluated. He added that the agency is asking the small-business community for its opinion on changing beryllium standards.

Snare's comment came in response to news reports that indicated three OSHA employees have tested positive for blood abnormalities linked to chronic beryllium disease since OSHA began testing employees for beryllium exposure last year.

According to former OSHA employee Adam Finkel, the agency has downplayed the risk of the exposure to the metal, which critics have said could be potentially lethal. Finkel filed a whistleblower complaint that alleged he was transferred because he advocated a beryllium safety plan that other OSHA officials did not want to implement.

The affected employees are thought to have been exposed to the beryllium -- a lightweight metal that can cause lung disease through exposure to its dust -- while conducting safety inspections at facilities that use the metal. According to OSHA records, nearly 1,000 employees have conducted inspections at sites with high levels of beryllium dust.

OSHA studies indicate that between 2 and 15 percent of workers exposed to beryllium during the manufacturing process are likely to get the disease.

The 1971 OSHA standard, which remains today, is for a maximum exposure level of 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour period. In 1999, the Energy Department raised its beryllium standard to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air. It was then that Finkel recommended a new OSHA standard to protect the agency's inspectors. "It's analogous to sending a kid with peanut allergy into the Jiffy factory," he said.

Industry officials said that while they support beryllium exposure research, there is not a link between the chemical and cancer. "Brush Wellman has had employees diagnosed with sub-clinical chronic beryllium disease who run marathons and climb mountains," said the head of Brush Wellman Inc.

OSHA "is in some kind of grand denial of the problem that extends to its own workers," said Peter Lurie of Public Citizen's Health Research Group. "Because they have not protected workers, they have put their own employees at risk (Cindy Skrzycki, Washington Post, Feb. 1). -- TE