After more than 10 years of delay, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has tightened the standard for worker exposures to benzene by a factor of 10, bringing the allowable air exposure limit down to 1 part per million, averaged over 8 hours. The highest allowable exposure for a short time is 5 ppm and the level at which officials become concerned (the official "action level") is 0.5 ppm. Benzene causes leukemia in humans.
In 1977 OSHA first proposed the standard that was finally adopted in 1987. The original proposal was attacked in court by the American Petroleum Institute. Two appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the oil giants, arguing that OSHA had not shown that benzene threatened workers' health. After the Supreme Court decision in 1980, OSHA built a new case against benzene but it took them five years to do it, using data available as early as 1976. The old benzene standard caused a five-fold increase in the risk of leukemia for workers.
Today an estimated 240,000 workers are exposed to benzene in the petroleum, chemical, printing, paint, rubber fabrica-ting and other industries where benzene is used as a solvent. As lead has been phased out of gasoline, its benzene content has been rising. Editorializing about the new benzene standard, the Washington Post Sept. 4 (pg. 24) said the benzene case demonstrates that OSHA's chemical-by-chemical attack on these problems is hopeless. If it takes 10 years to overcome industrial opposition and set safe standards for each dangerous chemical, American workers will never be adequately protected. The Post asked whether OSHA shouldn't be given the authority to ban whole classes of chemicals. The Post didn't say so, but this would put Uncle Sam in the toxics use reduction business. The Post said, "...it's time to rethink what OSHA does, the strategy to follow. The benzene standard is nice to have, but the broader record of accomplishment is paltry."
Rethinking OSHA's job, and devising a national strategy for toxics use reduction (one that protects workers and their jobs) should be high on the list for a new administration.
For further information about the new benzene standard, contact James Foster, Director, Office of
Information and Consumer Affairs, OSHA, Room N-3649, 200 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC
20210; phone 202/523-8151. For a copy of the final benzene standard (which goes into effect Dec. 10) phone
(202) 523-9667 or see the FEDERAL REGISTER Vol. 52 (Sept. 11, 1987), pgs. 34459-34578.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: osha; occupational safety and health; benzene; workers; air pollution; api; petroleum industry; pollution prevention; tur;