Rachel's Precaution Reporter #103, August 15, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: In this issue of the Precaution Reporter, Adam Finkel, a risk assessor, and Peter Montague, an advocate for precaution, engage in a dialog about risk and precaution.]

By Peter Montague

Recently my friend Adam Finkel -- a skilled and principled risk assessor -- won two important victories over the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

In 2000, Adam was appointed Regional Administrator for OSHA in charge of the Denver office. When he began to suspect that OSHA inspectors were being exposed to dangerous levels of the highly-toxic metal, beryllium, he took precautionary action -- urging OSHA to test beryllium levels in OSHA inspectors. It cost him his job.

The agency did not even want to tell its inspectors they were being exposed to beryllium, much less test them. So Adam felt he had no choice -- in 2002, he blew the whistle and took his concerns public. OSHA immediately relieved him of his duties as Regional Administrator, and moved him to Washington where they changed his title to "senior advisor" and assigned him to the National Safety Council -- a place where "they send people they don't like," he would later tell a reporter.

Adam sued OSHA under the federal whistleblower protection statute and eventually won two years' back pay, plus a substantial lump sum settlement, but he didn't stop there. In 2005, he lodged a Freedom of Information Act law suit against the agency, asking for all monitoring data on toxic exposures of all OSHA inspectors. Meanwhile, OSHA began testing its inspectors for beryllium, finding exactly what Adam had suspected they would find -- dangerously high levels of the toxic metal in some inspectors.

Adam is now a professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, School of Public Health, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ); and a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. At UMDNJ, he teaches "Environmental Risk Assessment."

Earlier this summer, Adam won his FOIA lawsuit. A judge ruled that OSHA has to hand over 2 million lab tests on 75,000 employees going back to 1979. It was a stunning victory over an entrenched bureaucracy.

Meanwhile in 2006 the American Public Health Association selected Adam to receive the prestigious David Rall Award for advocacy in public health. You can read his acceptance speech here.

When Adam's FOIA victory was announced early in July, I sent him a note of congratulations. He sent back a note, attaching a couple of articles, one of which was a book review he had published recently of Cass Sunstein's book, Risk and Reason. Sunstein doesn't "get" the precautionary principle -- evidently, he simply sees no need for it. Of course the reason why we need precaution is because the cumulative impacts of the human economy are now threatening to wreck our only home -- as Joe Guth explained last week in Rachel's News (reprinted in this issue of the Precaution Reporter).

In any event, I responded to Adam's book review by writing "A letter to my friend, who is a risk assessor," and I invited Adam to respond, which he was kind enough to do.

So there you have it.

Do any readers want to respond to either of us? Please send responses to peter@rachel.org.