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Defense Study on TCE Prompts Calls for OSHA to Act, Too (1)

Nov. 19, 2019, 3:10 PMUpdated: Nov. 21, 2019, 11:17 PM

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration should examine and lower its worker exposure limits to a carcinogenic degreasing agent called trichloroethylene, or TCE, scientists told Bloomberg Law.

As it stands, OSHA’s current standard is 100 times higher than the TCE exposure limit a National Academies of Sciences report recently recommended for the Defense Department.

Often used in refrigerant manufacturing and in spot removers and adhesives, TCE is commonly used as a solvent at many industrial facilities. It can affect the liver, kidneys, neurological system, immune system, and reproductive organs, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. There’s strong evidence that trichloroethylene can cause kidney cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The recent NAS study is an indictment of OSHA’s “abysmally high” TCE standard, said Adam Finkel, professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan and former director of OSHA’s health standards programs.

The NAS committee recommended that DOD consider using 0.9 parts per million (ppm) as its exposure limit temporarily. That’s 100 times lower than Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s current recommended exposure limit at 100 ppm on an eight-hour time-weighted average.

The Defense Department “managed in a relatively short period of time to request a study” from the NAS, said Finkel. “Why OSHA hasn’t been able to do [a rule] in the past 50 years is terrible,” he said.

Representatives from the Defense Department weren’t available for comment.

Other federal agencies have substantially lower occupational exposure limits. NIOSH’s limit is 25 ppm on a 10-hour time-weighted average; and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists’ limit is 10 ppm over 10 hours.

Most OSHA permissible exposure limits for chemicals in the workplace are outdated, and the agency has proposed only four such limits in the past 20 years, for methylene chloride, chromium, silica, and beryllium.

OSHA’s current TCE standards “are not health protective,” said David Dorman, who served on the committee that wrote the DOD report. He added that he “applauds DOD’s efforts to be proactive” about setting acceptable exposure limits.

“Where the Defense Department is proactively trying to identify new standards for their workers, I think the big challenge is that a lot of OSHA standards have not been updated,” Dorman said. He’s also a professor of toxicology in the Department of Molecular Biosciences at North Carolina State University.

An OSHA representative told Bloomberg Law that the agency’s Hazard Communication Standard is designed to ensure that information about chemical and toxic substance hazards in the workplace are transmitted to employers and workers.

“Information should be transmitted through comprehensive hazard communication programs, which include container labeling and other forms of warning, safety data sheets, and employee training,” said Simone Walter, an OSHA spokeswoman. “Employees should be trained on appropriate work practices, emergency procedures, and the use of personal protective equipment.”

The Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating the risks of TCE, along with nine other chemicals. Under the 2016 Toxic Substances Control Act amendments, for the first time in the law’s history, TSCA now requires the agency to examine the health and environmental risks of chemicals already in commerce.

The EPA’s draft TCE evaluation is expected to be released early next year.

To contact the reporter on this story: Fatima Hussein in Washington at fhussein@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com