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#128 - Standards To Protect The Public, 08-May-1989

Whenever someone wants to make some money and consequently dumps
chemicals into a community's air or water, they are quick to point out
that what they're doing "meets all state and federal standards." It is
time we took a close look at the way standards have been set in this

The federal government has set air quality standards for only about a
dozen pollutants. So the states have had to do it themselves. As of
September, 1988, 37 states had set air quality standards based on a
"threshold limit values" (TLVs) established by the American Conference
of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH). The ACGIH published its
first list of TLVs in 1946 and has published updated lists every year
since. The ACGIH began as a voluntary association of federal, state and
local officials, but quickly its ranks swelled with academic
researchers employed by industry, and by full-time industrial

In the early days, industry was the only source of data, and an
unwilling source. In the United States, there was no federal regulation
of general industry workplace hazards until 1971 (when the Occupational
Safety and Health Act, OSHA, passed by Congress in 1970, went into
effect). Consequently throughout the '40s, '50s and '60s, there was no
independent source of information about the exposure of workers to
chemicals and the consequences of those exposures (dose-response
relationships). Industry was the only source of data on these matters
and industry was under no obligation to tell what it knew. The head of
the ACGIH TLV committee wrote in 1969, "The data are in short supply
because industries either do not develop long-term studies, or if they
do, more often than not, do not see fit to release the data in the open

It is important to understand this concept of "open literature."
Despite what you may have been taught in school, science does not
produce "the" answer on any given question. The scientific method does
not arrive at definitive answers, it arrives at conclusions that are
always considered tentative, and it arrives at those conclusions
through publication of different studies so that scientists can reach a
consensus on what's right and what's wrong, what's true and what's not.
As studies are published for all to see (in the "open literature"),
different scientific groups criticize each other's methods and
reasoning and conclusions; then they do new studies and publish their
results; these in turn are criticized, and so a consensus develops that
"yes, probably this chemical will not produce clinical symptoms of
disease at x level of exposure for such and such a period of time under
such and such conditions."

Studies that are not published in the open literature cannot be
criticized. Their methods and reasoning cannot be scrutinized. In short
they cannot participate in the scientific process that leads to
consensus. Studies that are not published subvert the process of
scientific inquiry which depends entirely upon public appraisal and
reappraisal by practitioners searching for the always-elusive "truth."

In 1971, nearly all of the ACGIH's TLVs were adopted by the brand new
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as official
workplace standards. At that point it was clear to any observer that
the ACGIH would continue to influence federal workplace safety

In 1970, the ACGIH TLV committee had added two Dow Chemical
toxicologists to its ranks. In 1972, a Dupont industrial hygienist
joined the committee. One of the Dow representatives, and the DuPont
representative, became two of the four members of the new ACGIH
committee on carcinogenic substances in 1972. The minutes of ACGIH
meetings throughout the '70s show that industry representatives took on
the task of setting safety standards for chemicals that their own firms
produced. Specifically, the Dow representative had primary
responsibility for establishing the TLVs for the following products
manufactured by Dow, many of which are known carcinogens: vinyl
chloride, vinylidine chloride, chloroform, methyl chloride, ethylene
dichloride, ethylene dibromide, trichlorobenzene, dioxane,
ethanolamine, dipropylene oxide methyl ether, styrene, ethylene glycol,
dibromochloropropane, "Tordon," "Ruelene," "Dursban," and "Plictran."
The DuPont representative had primary responsibility for setting safety
standards for these DuPont products: dimethyl sulfate, "MOCA," lead
chromate, formamide, dichloromonofluoromethane, "Lannate," "Karmex,"
and "Hyvar X."

We have selected only the grossest examples of conflict of interest
affecting the ACGIH standardssetting process. Unfortunately, for the
past 20 years or longer, the ACGIH has routinely used unscientific
procedures, and secret industry data, to set workplace standards. A
recent study of the ACGIH and its standards-setting processes concluded
that "unpublished corporate communications were important in developing
TLVs for 104 substances; for 15 of these, the TLV documentation was
based solely on such information."

Thus, many standards initially set by the ACGIH, then adopted
uncritically by the federal government, and now being adopted
uncritically by state governments, were never established by a
scientifically valid process. They were established by companysponsored
scientists (some would call them indentured savants, others would give
them the harsher name, biostitutes) whose goals were not to establish
the truth, but were to press for levels of control that satisfied
industry's needs. After all, controlling chemicals costs money, so
really strict controls are expensive; laxer controls are cheaper,
sometimes substantially cheaper.

Perhaps the more important point is that ACGIH standards were never
intended as general environmental standards. The ACGIH specifically
warns against using its published standards to set environmental
standards because its TLVs pertain to the workplace, not to the general
environment. Workers are different from the general public. Workers are
in the prime years of life; they are healthy; they get a paycheck so
presumably they are well-fed. Most of them are white, most of them are
males. There are no babies in the workplace, no old people, no
chronically ill people. Standards intended to protect only workers will
definitely not adequately protect the general public. Nevertheless,
state agencies often have no resources to develop their own standards,
so they adopt ACGIH values, reduce them by an arbitrary amount (often a
hundred-fold reduction) and declare them "safe" for the public. The
"safety" of such standards is entirely dependent upon the original
"safety" of the ACGIH standards and they were often set, as we have
seen, under the influence of industry consultants to protect industry's

The next time someone tells you their project is going to meet all
state and federal standards, look into it very closely. You may be
unpleasantly surprised.

The entire structure of pollution control developed in the U.S. over
the past 20 years is dependent upon numerical standards. If the
standards cannot be relied upon because they were established by
unscientific processes, the entire framework of regulation is called
into question.

Furthermore, if government hasn't the resources to test and evaluate
new chemicals independently as they appear, this means that industry
will continue to be the only source of available data in many cases.
Thus it appears that the problem is structural and is not likely to be
resolved easily. Something fundamental may have to change.

[To be continued.]

Get: Barry Castleman and Grace Ziem, "Toxic Pollutants, Science, and
Corporate Influence," ARCHIVES OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH, Vol. 44 (No.
2), March/April, 1989, pgs. 68, 127; and the same authors, "Corporate
Influence on Threshold Limit Values." AMERICAN JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL
MEDICINE, Vol. 13 (1988), pgs. 531-559. Free reprints available from
Dr. Castleman, 1722 Linden Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21217.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: federal regulations; tlvs; air quality standards;
osha; conflict of interest; american conference of governmental
industrial hygienists; conflict resolution;