As federal regulators are poised to announce a new standard for protecting workers, a team of scientists reported yesterday that the chromium industry and its consulting scientists withheld and skewed data that suggests workers exposed to low levels of chromium are dying of lung cancer.
David Michaels, a professor of environmental and occupational science at George Washington University, and two other researchers detailed what they called an orchestrated campaign by the chromium industry to manipulate scientific data to persuade the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to weaken a proposed workplace standard.
Corporations that produce chromium and metal-finishing companies have opposed stricter limits on workers' exposure to hexavalent chromium since 1976, when OSHA first proposed changes in the regulation. OSHA faces a court order to announce its new standard by Tuesday.
An estimated 380,000 U.S. workers are exposed to hexavalent chromium, which is widely used in metal-plating, aerospace production, stainless steel processing and dye manufacture, among other businesses.
Classified as a known human carcinogen, hexavalent chromium has been tied to lung cancer in workers for more than 50 years. But the debate over the new OSHA standard centers on whether low levels found at modern plants increase workers' cancer rates.
Michael's report, published in the online journal Environmental Health, faults the handling of a cancer study at four large chromium production plants in the United States and Germany.
"This was a 10-year campaign to shape the science to fit the industry's agenda rather than shape the regulation to fit the science," Michaels said in an interview.
But a representative of Elementis Chromium Inc, the world's largest chromium producer, said there was no industry conspiracy. Instead, he said the industry was in turmoil during the period the study was being carried out with plants shutting down and changing owners - which led to delays and problems with the data's release.
Kate McMahon, an attorney for the industry trade group Chrome Coalition, called the allegations "completely and utterly baseless and absolutely dead wrong."
OSHA officials declined yesterday to comment on the report, saying only that they expect to meet Tuesday's deadline for the chromium standard.