3 omnipresent substances could join list of carcinogens Secondhand smoke, alcohol, diesel fumes eyed


WASHINGTON -- Three staples of modern life -- secondhand cigarette smoke, alcohol and diesel exhaust -- will likely soon be added to the official federal government list of cancer-causing agents, an action with potentially large regulatory and legal effects.

An influential independent panel of scientists probably will recommend that course after what are expected to be contentious hearings on the three substances today and tomorrow at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park.

Adding the substances to the U.S. National Toxicology Program's list of likely cancer-causing materials is more than simple bookkeeping. While the move wouldn't alter existing restrictions or warning labels on products, it is likely to be a foundation for new federal health and safety rules and could have large consequences in civil lawsuits.

The three prominent proposed additions "are big ones," said Dr. Howard Frumkin, chairman of environmental health studies at Emory University. It will be hard for one government agency not to regulate secondhand smoke or diesel fumes when the national toxicology program authoritatively states they cause cancer.

And this could also play out in courtrooms. A lawyer involved in the myriad suits against the tobacco industry said placing passive smoking on the list would add weight to cases by plaintiffs.

Last summer, a federal judge in North Carolina knocked down a 1993 Environmental Protection Agency report that secondhand smoke kills 3,000 people a year. Experts say adding secondhand smoke to the list could help the EPA's appeal.

"They are viewed as an authoritative source, which has a lot of influence on a lot of other government agencies and policy-making bodies," Stanton Glantz, a University of California, San Francisco, professor of medicine and a prominent smoking foe, said yesterday.

Two government panels have recommended adding secondhand smoke, diesel fumes and alcohol (as well as eight other substances), officials at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences said. This third committee, of outside experts, is expected to follow suit, said Bill Jameson, who chaired the first two government review panels.

Of the current 198 carcinogens listed by the National Institutes of Health, secondhand smoke, diesel fumes and alcohol would be the most omnipresent in daily life, Jameson said.

Pub Date: 12/02/98

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