Whenever someone wants to make some money and consequently dumps chemicals into a community's air or water, they are quick to point out that what they're doing "meets all state and federal standards." It is time we took a close look at the way standards have been set in this country.
The federal government has set air quality standards for only about a dozen pollutants. So the states have had to do it themselves. As of September, 1988, 37 states had set air quality standards based on a "threshold limit values" (TLVs) established by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH). The ACGIH published its first list of TLVs in 1946 and has published updated lists every year since. The ACGIH began as a voluntary association of federal, state and local officials, but quickly its ranks swelled with academic researchers employed by industry, and by full-time industrial consultants.
In the early days, industry was the only source of data, and an unwilling source. In the United States, there was no federal regulation of general industry workplace hazards until 1971 (when the Occupational Safety and Health Act, OSHA, passed by Congress in 1970, went into effect). Consequently throughout the '40s, '50s and '60s, there was no independent source of information about the exposure of workers to chemicals and the consequences of those exposures (dose-response relationships). Industry was the only source of data on these matters and industry was under no obligation to tell what it knew. The head of the ACGIH TLV committee wrote in 1969, "The data are in short supply because industries either do not develop long-term studies, or if they do, more often than not, do not see fit to release the data in the open literature."
It is important to understand this concept of "open literature." Despite what you may have been taught in school, science does not produce "the" answer on any given question. The scientific method does not arrive at definitive answers, it arrives at conclusions that are always considered tentative, and it arrives at those conclusions through publication of different studies so that scientists can reach a consensus on what's right and what's wrong, what's true and what's not. As studies are published for all to see (in the "open literature"), different scientific groups criticize each other's methods and reasoning and conclusions; then they do new studies and publish their results; these in turn are criticized, and so a consensus develops that "yes, probably this chemical will not produce clinical symptoms of disease at x level of exposure for such and such a period of time under such and such conditions."
Studies that are not published in the open literature cannot be criticized. Their methods and reasoning cannot be scrutinized. In short they cannot participate in the scientific process that leads to consensus. Studies that are not published subvert the process of scientific inquiry which depends entirely upon public appraisal and reappraisal by practitioners searching for the always-elusive "truth."
In 1971, nearly all of the ACGIH's TLVs were adopted by the brand new Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as official workplace standards. At that point it was clear to any observer that the ACGIH would continue to influence federal workplace safety standards.
In 1970, the ACGIH TLV committee had added two Dow Chemical toxicologists to its ranks. In 1972, a Dupont industrial hygienist joined the committee. One of the Dow representatives, and the DuPont representative, became two of the four members of the new ACGIH committee on carcinogenic substances in 1972. The minutes of ACGIH meetings throughout the '70s show that industry representatives took on the task of setting safety standards for chemicals that their own firms produced. Specifically, the Dow representative had primary responsibility for establishing the TLVs for the following products manufactured by Dow, many of which are known carcinogens: vinyl chloride, vinylidine chloride, chloroform, methyl chloride, ethylene dichloride, ethylene dibromide, trichlorobenzene, dioxane, ethanolamine, dipropylene oxide methyl ether, styrene, ethylene glycol, dibromochloropropane, "Tordon," "Ruelene," "Dursban," and "Plictran." The DuPont representative had primary responsibility for setting safety standards for these DuPont products: dimethyl sulfate, "MOCA," lead chromate, formamide, dichloromonofluoromethane, "Lannate," "Karmex," and "Hyvar X."
We have selected only the grossest examples of conflict of interest affecting the ACGIH standardssetting process. Unfortunately, for the past 20 years or longer, the ACGIH has routinely used unscientific procedures, and secret industry data, to set workplace standards. A recent study of the ACGIH and its standards-setting processes concluded that "unpublished corporate communications were important in developing TLVs for 104 substances; for 15 of these, the TLV documentation was based solely on such information."
Thus, many standards initially set by the ACGIH, then adopted uncritically by the federal government, and now being adopted uncritically by state governments, were never established by a scientifically valid process. They were established by companysponsored scientists (some would call them indentured savants, others would give them the harsher name, biostitutes) whose goals were not to establish the truth, but were to press for levels of control that satisfied industry's needs. After all, controlling chemicals costs money, so really strict controls are expensive; laxer controls are cheaper, sometimes substantially cheaper.
Perhaps the more important point is that ACGIH standards were never intended as general environmental standards. The ACGIH specifically warns against using its published standards to set environmental standards because its TLVs pertain to the workplace, not to the general environment. Workers are different from the general public. Workers are in the prime years of life; they are healthy; they get a paycheck so presumably they are well-fed. Most of them are white, most of them are males. There are no babies in the workplace, no old people, no chronically ill people. Standards intended to protect only workers will definitely not adequately protect the general public. Nevertheless, state agencies often have no resources to develop their own standards, so they adopt ACGIH values, reduce them by an arbitrary amount (often a hundred-fold reduction) and declare them "safe" for the public. The "safety" of such standards is entirely dependent upon the original "safety" of the ACGIH standards and they were often set, as we have seen, under the influence of industry consultants to protect industry's interests.
The next time someone tells you their project is going to meet all state and federal standards, look into it very closely. You may be unpleasantly surprised.
The entire structure of pollution control developed in the U.S. over the past 20 years is dependent upon numerical standards. If the standards cannot be relied upon because they were established by unscientific processes, the entire framework of regulation is called into question.
Furthermore, if government hasn't the resources to test and evaluate new chemicals independently as they appear, this means that industry will continue to be the only source of available data in many cases. Thus it appears that the problem is structural and is not likely to be resolved easily. Something fundamental may have to change.
[To be continued.]
Get: Barry Castleman and Grace Ziem, "Toxic Pollutants, Science,
and Corporate Influence," ARCHIVES OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH, Vol.
44 (No. 2), March/April, 1989, pgs. 68, 127; and the same
authors, "Corporate Influence on Threshold Limit Values."
AMERICAN JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL MEDICINE, Vol. 13 (1988), pgs.
531-559. Free reprints available from Dr. Castleman, 1722 Linden
Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21217.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: federal regulations; tlvs; air quality standards; osha; conflict of interest; acgih; conflict resolution;