After more than 10 years of delay, the federal Occupational Safety and
Health Administration (OSHA) has tightened the standard for worker
exposures to benzene by a factor of 10, bringing the allowable air
exposure limit down to 1 part per million, averaged over 8 hours. The
highest allowable exposure for a short time is 5 ppm and the level at
which officials become concerned (the official "action level") is 0.5
ppm. Benzene causes leukemia in humans.
In 1977 OSHA first proposed the standard that was finally adopted in
1987. The original proposal was attacked in court by the American
Petroleum Institute. Two appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court
sided with the oil giants, arguing that OSHA had not shown that benzene
threatened workers' health. After the Supreme Court decision in 1980,
OSHA built a new case against benzene but it took them five years to do
it, using data available as early as 1976. The old benzene standard
caused a five-fold increase in the risk of leukemia for workers.
Today an estimated 240,000 workers are exposed to benzene in the
petroleum, chemical, printing, paint, rubber fabrica-ting and other
industries where benzene is used as a solvent. As lead has been phased
out of gasoline, its benzene content has been rising. Editorializing
about the new benzene standard, the Washington Post Sept. 4 (pg. 24)
said the benzene case demonstrates that OSHA's chemical-by-chemical
attack on these problems is hopeless. If it takes 10 years to overcome
industrial opposition and set safe standards for each dangerous
chemical, American workers will never be adequately protected. The Post
asked whether OSHA shouldn't be given the authority to ban whole
classes of chemicals. The Post didn't say so, but this would put Uncle
Sam in the toxics use reduction business. The Post said, "...it's time
to rethink what OSHA does, the strategy to follow. The benzene standard
is nice to have, but the broader record of accomplishment is paltry."
Rethinking OSHA's job, and devising a national strategy for toxics use
reduction (one that protects workers and their jobs) should be high on
the list for a new administration.
For further information about the new benzene standard, contact James
Foster, Director, Office of Information and Consumer Affairs, OSHA,
Room N-3649, 200 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20210; phone
202/523-8151. For a copy of the final benzene standard (which goes into
effect Dec. 10) phone (202) 523-9667 or see the FEDERAL REGISTER Vol.
52 (Sept. 11, 1987), pgs. 34459-34578.
SALE OF A CARCINOGENIC PESTICIDE BANNED, AT LEAST FOR TIME BEING
Velsicol Chemical Co. and the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection
Agency) announced October 1 an agreement that takes the termite-killing
pesticide chlordane off the market for a time, possibly even forever.
Most sales of chlordane are banned as of November 30, 1987, and all
sales are banned as of April 30, 1988. However, the purpose of the ban
is to allow the chemical's only manufacturer, Velsicol, to find new
ways to apply the chemical beneath homes without contaminating indoor
air. If Velsicol demonstrates they can do this, chlordane will be back
on the market. "This only bans sale, not use," said Jay Feldman of the
National Coalition Against Misuse of Pesticides, with obvious
A related chemical, heptachlor is also covered by the chlordane
agreement and its sales will be phased out as well.
Chlordane causes cancer in laboratory mice and is listed by the EPA as
a "suspected human carcinogen." It can also cause liver damage and
nerve damage in exposed humans and animals. The chemical is pumped into
the ground beneath one million U.S. homes each year to kill termites;
chlordane accounts for 2/3rds of the termite control business in the
U.S., a business dominated by Orkin and Terminix.
The agreement was announced in a federal court one day before the EPA
was reportedly going to announce a true ban on the chemical. Under
federal law, if the EPA had announced such a ban the agency would have
been required to purchase all existing stocks of the chemical and
dispose of them (probably by incineration). The agreement saved EPA a
lot of money and trouble; the existing stocks will now be disposed of
by being pumped beneath homes. John A. Moore of EPA denied that
financial considerations played any part in the EPA's decision to
accept the agreement and forget the ban. He said federal law would have
required the agency to declare chlordane an "imminent hazard" before a
ban would stick. In addition, he argued that the agreement gets
chlordane out of use more quickly than a ban because Velsicol could
have appealed a ban and a federal pesticide appeal can take many years,
during which time use of the pesticide goes on.
Chlordane is one of a group of pesticides called cyclodienes; others in
the class are heptachlor, aldrin and dieldrin. They were developed 40
years ago when almost everyone embraced chemical bug killers
enthusiastically. Now cyclodienes are known to cause nerve damage to
exposed humans. They cause dizziness, headaches, muscle spasms and
nausea. In 1978, EPA banned agricultural use of chlordane because of
the cancer risk. Its use in termite control was allow to continue
because the agency believed no chlordane would enter homes.
True, in the '70s the Air Force had given the EPA evidence that
chlordane applied by the book had contaminated indoor air in homes of
Air Force personnel. However Velsicol disputed the evidence and the EPA
backed off. Then in early 1987 Velsicol itself came forth with a study
showing that proper treatment of homes had resulted in substantial
contamination of indoor air. The EPA had evidence on which to act.
Still it did not act.
Then in September, 1987, a coalition of environmental and labor groups
went to court seeking an emergency suspension of chlordane. Only then
did EPA get together with Velsicol and work out the agreement.
EPA HAS DRINKING WATER HOTLINE
The U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) maintains an 800 hotline
telephone to provide you with information about drinking water.
Friendly people try to answer your questions. Call 800/426-4791. Within
DC, call 202/382-5533.
Descriptor terms: epa; drinking water; hotlines; chlordane; pesticides;
insecticides; velsicol; bans; heptachlor; carcinogens; cancer;
termites; epa; zero discharge; indoor air pollution; osha; occupational
safety and health; benzene; workers; air pollution; american petroleum
institute; petroleum industry; pollution prevention;