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Watchdog group: Industry withheld data on workplace risks of chromium

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Worried about stricter regulations, the chromium industry withheld key data from the government involving the health risks of workers exposed to the carcinogenic metal, according to a study released Thursday.

The paper by George Washington University and Public Citizen, published in Environmental Health, found the industry submitted incomplete data last year on the links between hexavalent chromium and lung cancer.

Hexavalent chromium, the chemical featured in the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich, is used in chrome plating, stainless steel welding and the production of chromate pigments and dyes. Approximately 380,000 welders, steelworkers and jewelers are exposed to it on the job.

The new findings come one week before the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration was set, by court order, to issue a new standard on acceptable workplace levels of chromium. A federal appeals court set the Feb. 28 deadline after Public Citizen sued over delays in issuing a rule.

``The circumstances regarding this study raise troubling questions about the ability of the government to effectively issue rules protecting public health when studies are conducted, controlled and selectively published,'' said Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group.

OSHA said it was working hard ``to produce a final rule that complies with the court's order.'' A spokeswoman, Sharon Worthy, declined additional comment. A spokeswoman for the Specialty Steel Industry of North America did not immediately return calls seeking comment Thursday.

According to the paper, industry groups commissioned a study in 1997 at four sites _ two in the U.S., two in Germany _ on chromium's risks in anticipation of a move by OSHA to further restrict workplace levels of the metal.

But once the study was completed in 2002, industry groups submitted to OSHA selected data suggesting that only the highest _ and not intermediate _ exposure of chromium led to a significantly higher risk of lung cancer death.

``Public health rulemakings should not be based on partial records or limited by scientists' career concerns, particularly when lives hang in the balance,'' the paper states.

Public Citizen and the paper's lead author, David Michaels of George Washington University's School of Public Health and Health Services, said they stumbled upon evidence that key data was withheld in documents disclosed last year following the bankruptcy of Industrial Health Foundation, a chromium industry-funded group.

Public Citizen says it has submitted the complete four-site data to OSHA. But it's unclear whether OSHA is considering the information because it came after the agency stopped accepting material for its rule-making process, the watchdog group said.

Currently, OSHA regulations cap chromium levels at work to 52 micrograms per cubic meter. It supports restricting levels to 1 microgram per cubic meter, which is slightly lower than ``intermediate'' exposure levels of 1.2 to 5.8, according to the paper.

Public Citizen is urging OSHA to restrict the level to 0.25 microgram per cubic meter.
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