Why the government fails to limit many dangerous chemicals in the workplace
The U.S. agency that's supposed to protect workers' health has all but given up on setting limits on a dangerous chemical released in tire manufacturing. Meanwhile, workers are dying.
Before his shift at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber plant in Niagara Falls, N.Y., in May 2021, a worker peed in a cup.
Before he clocked out, he did it again.
Goodyear shipped both specimens to a lab to measure the amount of a chemical called ortho-toluidine. The results, reviewed by ProPublica, showed that the worker had enough of it in his body to put him at an increased risk for bladder cancer — and that was before his shift. After, his levels were nearly five times as high.
It's no secret that the plant's workers are being exposed to poison. Government scientists began testing their urine more than 30 years ago. And Goodyear, which uses ortho-toluidine to make its tires pliable, has been monitoring the air for traces of the chemical since 1976. A major expose even revealed, almost a decade ago, that dozens of the plant's workers had developed bladder cancer since 1974.
What is perhaps most stunning about the trail of sick Goodyear workers is that they have been exposed to levels of the chemical that the United States government says are perfectly safe.
The permissible exposure limit for ortho-toluidine is 5 parts per million in air, a threshold based on research conducted in the 1940s and '50s without any consideration of the chemical's ability to cause cancer. Despite ample evidence that far lower levels can dramatically increase a person's cancer risk, the legal limit has remained the same.
Paralyzed by industry lawsuits from decades ago, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has all but given up on trying to set a truly protective threshold for ortho-toluidine and thousands of other chemicals. The agency has only updated standards for three chemicals in the past 25 years; each took more than a decade to complete.
David Michaels, OSHA's director throughout the Obama administration, told ProPublica that legal challenges had so tied his hands that he decided to put a disclaimer on the agency's website saying the government's limits were essentially useless: "OSHA recognizes that many of its permissible exposure limits (PELs) are outdated and inadequate for ensuring protection of worker health." This remarkable admission of defeat remains on the official site of the U.S. agency devoted to protecting worker health.
"To me, it was obvious," Michaels said. "You can't lie and say you're offering protection when you're not. It seemed much more effective to say, 'Don't follow our standards.'"
The agency has also allowed chemical manufacturers to create their own safety data sheets, which are supposed to provide workers with the exposure limits and other critical information. OSHA does not require the sheets to be accurate or routinely fact-check them. As a result, many fail to mention the risk of cancer and other serious health hazards.
In a statement, Doug Parker, the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, acknowledged the agency's impotence. "The requirements of the rulemaking process, including limitations placed by prior judicial decisions, have limited our ability to have more up to date standards," he said. "Chemical exposure, including to o-toluidine, is a major health hazard for workers, and we have to do more to protect their health."
Agency officials did not reply to a follow-up question asking what more they will do.
Goodyear, in a statement, said it "remains committed to actions to address ortho-toluidine exposure inside our Niagara Falls facility." The company said it requires workers to wear protective equipment, invests in upgrades like ventilation and offers regular bladder cancer screenings "at no cost" to workers. It pointed out that ortho-toluidine levels at Goodyear's Niagara Falls plant had plummeted over the past decades and that the levels have "consistently been far below the permissible exposure limits as set by government regulators," meaning 5 parts per million.
James Briggs worked for 20 years in the Niagara Falls plant before taking a job with the United Steelworkers union, which represents dozens of Goodyear employees there. While pushing for changes that would reduce its members' exposure to ortho-toluidine at the plant, the union has essentially given up on eliminating the risk.
"If I could have my way, would I like to be able to wave a magic wand and take the risk away? Yes, I would," he said. "Everybody that works in that plant realizes there's some risk that comes with it. They all get it. We tell them. It's part of the orientation for new employees."
Gary Casten never got such a talk when he started at the plant in 1965, he alleged in court testimony. A devoted union leader, bowler and Yankees fan, he let the government test his urine in 1990; he, too, had a chemical level five times as high after his shift than before it. More than once in his 39 years at Goodyear, Casten's lips and fingernails turned blue, a well-known sign of ortho-toluidine poisoning.
Still, it came as a shock to Casten when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2020. "If you looked up 'nice' in the dictionary, you'd see a picture of Gary," said Harry Weist, one of his former co-workers. Casten underwent surgery and chemotherapy and lost his strength and his appetite. It soon became clear that the cancer had spread.
Along with dozens of other Goodyear employees, he sued the chemical companies that manufactured the ortho-toluidine used at the plant; workers' compensation law prevented them from suing their employer. When asked at a legal proceeding in April 2021 whether anyone had warned him about the risks, he said, "If I had been told that from the first day I walked through the gates, I wouldn't have worked there."
He died four months later.
Last year, the grim tally of Goodyear plant workers' bladder cancer diagnoses reached 78.
The recent test results suggest it is likely to keep climbing.
'The system is broken'
Created in 1970 in response to mounting injuries, illnesses and deaths from workplace hazards, OSHA was supposed to issue regulations based on scientific research conducted by its sibling agency, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
At first, the pair got off to a somewhat promising start, with OSHA using NIOSH research to issue more protective standards for lead, arsenic, benzene, asbestos and several other carcinogens. "The goal of the early administrators was to set lower and lower and lower standards so that industries could adapt and ultimately eliminate the use of these materials," said David Rosner, a historian of public health at Columbia University.
But within a few years, asbestos, which was already well established as a carcinogen, presented a political challenge. "For asbestos, NIOSH said nothing other than a number approaching zero can be considered safe," said Rosner. "But then they sent that science over to OSHA, and OSHA realized if you do that you're going to have to shut plants everywhere."
Chemical companies pounced, warning that OSHA's standards would lead to job losses amid a recession; they turned the agency into "a whipping boy for why American industry was in chaos," as Rosner put it. By 1973, the Asbestos Information Association/North America suggested that health-based regulation of its members' product might be a "nefarious conspiracy afoot to destroy the asbestos industry."
Two years later, the director of NIOSH declared that there was "virtually no doubt that asbestos is carcinogenic to man" and proposed lowering the safety threshold. But OSHA hedged. It acknowledged that no detectable level of asbestos was safe, but put off changing its standard due to a legal requirement to take "technical and economic factors" into consideration.
While OSHA eventually updated its asbestos standard more than a decade later, lawsuits helped chill — and ultimately all but freeze — progress on setting limits for most chemicals by requiring the agency to do more and increasingly complex analyses.
One such suit, brought by the American Petroleum Institute and decided by the Supreme Court in 1980, challenged OSHA's limit for benzene. Although there was no scientific question that benzene causes leukemia, the court decided that, before setting a new standard, OSHA would have to first establish that the old one put workers at "significant risk" of harm. Another lawsuit, filed by the lead industry, left OSHA responsible for not just calculating the costs of complying with its standards but also demonstrating "a reasonable likelihood" that they would not threaten "the existence or competitive structure of an industry."
Faced with massive requirements for updating a single limit, in 1989 OSHA tried another tack: lowering and setting safety thresholds for 428 chemicals at once. The move could have prevented more than 55,000 lost workdays due to illness and an average of 683 fatalities from hazardous chemicals each year, according to the agency's estimates.
But that attempt was stymied, too. The American Iron and Steel Institute, the American Mining Congress, the American Paper Institute, the American Petroleum Institute and the Society of the Plastics Industry were among the dozens of trade associations that joined to sue OSHA, criticizing the agency's decision to lump the chemicals together and claiming that they had inadequate time to respond to the proposed changes. While most unions supported the agency's effort, some sued OSHA as well, arguing that some of the updated standards were not protective enough.
In 1992, the court of appeals vacated all of the safety limits that OSHA had set and updated three years earlier, finding that the agency had failed to prove that exposure to the chemicals posed a significant risk of health impairments and that the proposed changes were not economically and technologically feasible for the companies that used the chemicals.
By the time he was appointed to run OSHA in 2009, Michaels was well aware of the risks of the chemical used at Goodyear. Just before he took the helm of the agency, he devoted a chapter of his book about industry influence over science to ortho-toluidine, chronicling the cancers at the Niagara Falls plant and the fact that manufacturers had evidence of the chemical's carcinogenicity as far back as the 1940s.
But given how onerous the limit-setting process had become — and how many other chemicals were in even more desperate need of accurate limits, in part because greater numbers of workers were exposed to them — he decided not to attempt to update the ortho-toluidine standard.
In the past 25 years, OSHA has updated just three standards.
Forced by a lawsuit, in 2006 the agency issued a standard for chromium, the carcinogen featured in the movie "Erin Brockovich," which was also causing cancer at exposure levels far below its outdated limit. In 2016, OSHA issued a protective standard for silica, a cancer-causing dust that millions of workers are exposed to each year. And, in 2021, OSHA finalized an exposure limit for beryllium, an element whose prior limit was more than 70 years old. Every year, thousands of shipyard and construction workers are exposed to beryllium, which can scar the lungs and cause cancer. Each update took more than a decade to complete as the agency amassed the voluminous data it needed to justify the changes.
While the 1972 standard for asbestos was just five pages long, the one for silica stretched across 600 pages. "And that's mostly because of the requirements that followed all these lawsuits," said Michaels, who worked on the silica standard throughout his time as administrator and is now a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health.
Michaels argues the problem isn't the agency itself as much as its small budget and the court-imposed burdens resulting from the lawsuits.
"Don't blame OSHA," said Michaels. "The system is broken."
'A form of self regulation'
Tucked in a binder in the foreman's office at the Goodyear plant is another tool that might have helped workers. Since 1983, OSHA has required chemical manufacturers to create safety data sheets: documents that present clear information about a chemical's hazards. Workers and employers consult these to make decisions on what kinds of precautions to take.
OSHA does not routinely check to see whether the data sheets contain inaccuracies or even require them to be accurate. Companies must note carcinogens as cancer-causing only if they are on OSHA's own very truncated list, which notably omits ortho-toluidine. OSHA specifies that companies "may" rather than "must" rely on the National Toxicology Program or the International Agency for Research on Cancer for determinations on whether a chemical causes cancer.
In comments submitted to OSHA in 2016, the advocacy groups Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the BlueGreen Alliance said the agency's hands-off approach ignored the inherent conflicts of interest.
"Allowing manufacturers to disregard hazard assessments by two authoritative bodies and to conduct their own hazard assessment of products in which they have significant financial investment is a form of self-regulation that will undoubtedly compromise transparency, accurate and timely disclosure of information, and ultimately workplace health and safety," the environmental organizations wrote.
The groups suggested the agency should take the job of evaluating chemicals away from the companies that make them. But OSHA again failed to act. As a result, experts say, the safety data sheets for hazardous chemicals are still riddled with errors.
Almost one-third of more than 650 sheets for dangerous chemicals contain inaccurate warnings, according to a study, published today, that was conducted by the BlueGreen Alliance, an organization that focuses on the intersection of labor and environmental issues, and Clearya, a company that alerts consumers to the presence of toxic chemicals in products. Of 512 sheets for carcinogenic chemicals the groups reviewed, 15% did not mention cancer in the hazards identification section, and 21% of 372 safety data sheets for chemicals that pose a risk to fertility and fetal development omitted that fact.
Even sheets for well-known carcinogens like benzene and vinyl chloride often don't include warnings that they cause cancer. One for asbestos, for example, fails to say in its hazard section that the mineral causes lung cancer and mesothelioma, instead warning only of skin irritation, serious eye irritation and the possibility of respiratory irritation.
While the inaccuracy of safety data sheets is a global problem, companies in the U.S. are among the worst offenders, according to the analysis by the BlueGreen Alliance and Clearya. Safety data sheets in the U.S. are far more likely to be missing information about health hazards than those in Europe, their analysis showed. In part, that's because of differing approaches to regulating chemicals.
"In other jurisdictions like Europe, Australia and Japan, they say, 'There's a list of chemicals we're concerned about, and here's how we're classifying them.' So they can't play around with the truth," said Dorothy Wigmore, an industrial hygienist based in Canada.
By law, OSHA can fine companies no more than $14,502 for each violation of its hazard communication standard, which amounts to a slap on the wrist for most companies, according to experts. The agency most recently responded to a complaint at the Goodyear plant in 2015, when it issued a citation for violation of its Respiratory Protection Standard but did not issue a fine.
Of the regulatory approach to safety data sheets in the United States, Wigmore said, "It's a series of situations that are just designed to let all kinds of hazards get out into the marketplace."
The primary law governing the regulation of chemicals in the United States, called the Toxic Substances Control Act, contains a provision designed to keep chemical makers honest and the public informed.
If companies that manufacture, import, process or distribute chemicals find any evidence that their products might present a substantial risk to human health or the environment, they must immediately share that information with the Environmental Protection Agency.
DuPont, which had supplied ortho-toluidine to the Goodyear plant since 1957, had just that kind of information back in 1993. An industrial hygienist named Tom Nelson who worked at DuPont calculated that the permissible exposure level was at least 37 times too high to protect workers.
Almost three decades later, an attorney named Steven Wodka stumbled upon Nelson's calculations while reviewing thousands of documents he had obtained from the company through discovery, in cases his clients — Goodyear plant workers, including Casten — brought against DuPont. The information should have been public. Yet, when Wodka checked Chemview, an EPA database that contains such information supplied by companies known as 8(e) reports, he found no mention of Nelson's bombshell discovery. The agency did make public five reports that DuPont submitted about the chemical, but none disclose the calculations showing just how ineffective the permissible exposure level is.
In January 2021, Wodka wrote to the agency to report that DuPont was violating the 8(e) provision of the chemicals law by withholding information about just how dangerous ortho-toluidine is.
"There is a direct connection between DuPont's failure to abide by this statute and the continuing cases of bladder cancer in the Goodyear workers in Niagara Falls, New York," the letter stated, before urging the EPA administrator to "enforce this statute to its full extent against DuPont."
After months of silence, Wodka received a response from the EPA this September. "We did not take further enforcement action because we had a document that demonstrated that they met their 8e obligations," Gloria Odusote, a program manager in the agency's waste and chemical enforcement division, wrote to Wodka. She said the document contained "confidential business information" and was exempt from public disclosure.
The kind of exemption she cited was designed to allow companies to keep secret information that could give their competitors a window into their business practices, such as manufacturing processes and chemical formulas whose disclosure could "cause substantial business injury." But companies routinely use the exemption to shield all kinds of information, including the names of chemicals, the amounts produced and the location of plants that make them. The chemicals law forbids companies from claiming health and safety studies as confidential business information.
"EPA can't keep this information secret," said Eve Gartner, an attorney who directs the Toxic Exposure & Health Program at Earthjustice. The agency's failure to list the document on Chemview and make it available to the public upon request, she said, "adds an additional layer of impermissible secrecy."
DuPont declined to comment, noting in an email that ortho-toluidine was produced by "E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., not DuPont de Nemours," as the company now calls itself after relaunching in 2019. It has settled all 28 lawsuits in which Wodka represented Goodyear workers with bladder or urothelial cancer.
EPA officials said they are looking into the matter.
'Shouldn't have to struggle like this'
On a snowy November morning in western New York, Harry Weist awaited his next cystoscopy. A 66-year-old retired Goodyear worker with a graying buzz cut and a horseshoe mustache, Weist has already undergone dozens of these tests, in which a tiny camera is inserted through his urethra and into his bladder. On three occasions, in 2004, 2019 and 2020, the images revealed cancerous tumors that had to be surgically removed.
It can take days and sometimes weeks for the pain and discomfort from the surgery to ease. What never goes away, though, is the dread about the cancer that future probes will find. "My doctor said it's not if it will return, but when," Weist said.
During his 34 years working at the Goodyear plant, Weist ran the Super Bowl pool, served in the union and became "thick as thieves" with a few of his co-workers. He also breathed in fumes so stinging and strong that he was left gasping for air. But on that November day, he preferred to think about the lifelong friends he made at the plant.
One, a close relative who has also had three bouts of bladder cancer and undergone chemotherapy, radiation and surgery to treat it, has gotten a job delivering car parts at age 84 to cover some of his medical costs. According to Weist, the family member (who declined to be interviewed) is so loyal to the company that "if you cut him, he would bleed Goodyear blue." Weist makes the joke affectionately; the men remain close, even as they sharply disagree about their former employer.
"He says we made these bills so we're going to pay them," Weist said. It is difficult to definitively prove the cause of any individual cancer. But Weist feels sure his and that of his relative were due to decades of extreme exposure to a chemical known to cause bladder cancer. "I tell him, 'Goodyear gave us cancer. We worked at their factory and wound up getting bladder cancer. You shouldn't have to struggle like this.'"
Weist thinks often of Casten, who died at 74, leaving behind a daughter and grandkids who called him Popcorn. Like his old friend, Weist would have made a different choice had he been warned about the risks of working around ortho-toluidine. "Of course I wouldn't have taken the job if I knew I was going to go through this," he said.
Last year, NIOSH scientists published a risk assessment of ortho-toluidine that put the finest point yet on exactly how dangerous the chemical is — and how egregiously wrong the permissible exposure limit remains. OSHA says it strives to keep worker risk under one in 1,000, meaning one in every thousand people being harmed, after the Supreme Court suggested this threshold more than four decades ago. To bring the risk at the Goodyear plant to that range, the safety threshold for ortho-toluidine in the air should be about one three-thousandth that level, the assessment concluded.
The current permissible limit, 5 parts per million, is the same as 5,000 parts per billion. Yet even just 10 parts per billion in the air would cause each 1,000 exposed workers to contract between 12 and 68 "excess" cases of bladder cancer, meaning the number they'd likely develop above the number expected in the general population, according to the study.
The average amount of ortho-toluidine in the air at the plant is even higher: 11.3 parts per billion, according to testing completed by Goodyear in 2019. The company said that it has continued to measure air concentrations of the chemical in the plant since then, but declined to share results of that testing with ProPublica.
That measurement along with pre- and post-shift urine samples from workers at the plant "provide conclusive evidence that the Niagara Falls workers are still absorbing ortho-toluidine into their bodies during the workshift," Wodka wrote to OSHA in March in a petition co-authored by a physician and a toxicologist who have served as expert witnesses in Goodyear worker cases, as well as an epidemiologist who previously worked for the American Cancer Society and the U.S. Public Health Service.
The occupational health experts asked OSHA to update the standard. Specifically, they asked that the permissible exposure limit in air for eight hours be reduced from 5,000 parts per billion to 1 part per billion and that the agency require companies to clearly inform their workers that the chemical causes bladder cancer.
OSHA has not responded to their petition.
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