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Manufactured Doubt Fends Off Regulation

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/tobacco.jpgHeads of largest U.S. tobacco companies testify that nicotine is not addictive -- before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and the Environment in 1994.

Beryllium, a rare metal that gives glitter to emeralds and aquamarine, became an indispensable component of nuclear bombs during the atomic era, and tens of thousands of Americans went to work shaping and milling the metal. Remarkably light and strong, beryllium is now used in everything from space rocket cones to golf clubs to brake pads for military jets.

Science.jpg
Science.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

When inhaled, beryllium is an astonishingly dangerous substance. It causes a chronic, incurable lung disease that has crippled thousands of workers. The wives of beryllium workers have fallen ill from the exposures they get washing their husband’s clothes; even people living near beryllium factories can get the disease.

Yet during the decades in which thousands of workers were afflicted with crippling and often fatal beryllium disease, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration dithered about lowering the permissible exposure to the metal. The current standard for exposure was adjudicated by two Atomic Energy Commission scientists in the back of a taxicab in 1949.

Doubt has stayed OSHA’s hand—manufactured doubt. The science of beryllium exposure, like most scientific endeavors, hasn’t been able to deliver perfect clarity. Industry officials have discovered that by funding teams of public relations specialists, lobbyists and scientists-for-hire, they can sow enough doubt about the data to fend off regulation.

Beryllium isn’t the first industry where this has happened. The most visible current example is the oil industry, which has used the imprecision of climate science to slow actions to reduce greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

In his riveting new book, “Doubt Is Their Product,” George Washington University epidemiologist David Michaels details how Big Tobacco originated the cottage industry of doubt in the 1950s. Many of the same scientists and public relations firms worked first to defend tobacco before moving on to chromium, asbestos and other toxic substances. They did so not by denying harm, but by raising questions about its extent.

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/doubt.jpgMichaels was chief safety officer for the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration. Many examples he gives in the book come from battles he fought personally.

The beryllium industry in America consists mainly of a single firm, Brush Wellman. Beryllium used to make fluorescent lights in the 1920s, but acute beryllium poisoning quickly began killing workers who’d been on the job for as little as a few months. The postwar Atomic Energy Commission took steps to reduce exposures, setting an initial limit of 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air in beryllium factories.

At those levels, the men didn’t drop dead. But thousands still got sick over time.

From 1958 to 1993, Gary Renwand Sr. worked as a machinist at the Brush Wellman plant southeast of Toledo, Ohio, shaping parts for space capsule reentry shields, electrical switches and brake pads. “There was a lot of powder in the air,” he told me. “We were never even told to wear masks until the last few years.”

Toward the end of his work years, Renwand’s mornings began with a coughing fit. Ultimately, he was diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease. He now heads a support group in Ohio for 200 other sick beryllium workers. Fifteen have died in the last few years.

In beryllium disease, which strikes as many as 15 percent of people exposed to the metal, the immune system goes into overdrive to try to rid the lungs of the invader. Renwand has been on a daily regimen of steroids for 15 years to counter his immune response. The steroids cause him to put on weight, and he now suffers from diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis, in addition to breathing difficulties.

Renwand’s oldest son, 51-year-old Gary Jr., has beryllium disease, too. And the elder Renwand worries about his youngest son, who is still working in the plant. “If I had known what I know now, I never would have let them go to work there. But there aren’t a lot of decent-paying jobs around here.”

“It’s a sad situation,” said Victor Kadamenos, a Mansfield, Ohio, attorney who represents beryllium disease patients in worker’s compensation claims. “These people are all ages, and man, it’s a devastating disease. They come in here with oxygen tanks. They can’t breath. It’s horrible.”

For three decades, researchers armed with buckets of research urged OSHA to lower the exposure limit. But each time the agency seemed ready, Brush Wellman stepped in with studies that it paid for to raise doubts about what an acceptable limit of exposure would be, according to Michaels’ account.

In 1975, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health funded a large body of convincing research and urged OSHA to lower the exposure level. Brush Wellman used its clout in Washington to get the Dept. of Energy to quash regulation—it was seen as a national security issue.

The company also started hiring epidemiologists, including Brian MacMahon of the Harvard School of Public Health, to publish a stream of re-analyses that raised questions about the NIOSH data. Michaels cites a 1987 Brush Wellman memo in which a company official urged that a book be produced to counter two decades of literature on beryllium that had been “very damaging.” The book came out. Hill and Knowlton, a PR firm previously hired to defend the tobacco, asbestos and lead industries, was brought on board to strategize.

“Economic forces,” said Dr. Lee Newman, who ran a clinic for berylliosis patients at Jewish Hospital in Denver for nearly two decades, “have clearly won out over public health, over worker health.”

The aphorism “lies, damned lies and statistics” dates to the 19th century, and the manipulation of data certainly predates it. Yet Michaels’ book is still a distressing reminder that science, whose practitioners are sworn to pursue truth, can be as fungible as any other endeavor, even in the hands of people with MD and PhD behind their names.

No one is saying that more beryllium research isn’t needed. No one is saying that honest scientists can’t disagree. But there comes a time when scientific consensus points to the need to take action. And money talks — in science as everywhere else. A concerted effort by industry to bankroll doubt-producing science has the power to obscure scientific consensus. And it obviously has goals other than the creation of good public health.

Under the Clinton administration, the government made a concerted effort to compensate victims of Cold War industries. Michaels helped establish a program that has paid out $270 million in claims to more than 2,600 beryllium workers, most of whom suffered crippling lung disease. Each worker gets a lump sum payment, now $150,000, as well as free medical care.

The DOE also established a permissible exposure limit 10 times lower for its facilities and those of its contractors. But despite the fact that Brush Wellman itself now has an exemplary worker protection system, the company has fought tooth and nail to prevent OSHA from following DOE’s lead, though the American Industrial Hygiene Association recommends a level of 0.05 micrograms– 40 times lower than the current OSHA standard.

What this means is that companies that use Wellman’s products are not always as careful as it is around beryllium. “There was a wide range of what I saw in industry,” said Newman, “from companies being extremely cautious, doing what they could to exceed OSHA standards, to others that were cavalier in the use of beryllium. And everything in between ‘’

Presumably hoping to maintain a good market for its product, and to prevent litigation, Bush Wellman has also been steadfast in its denial that beryllium can cause lung cancer, despite good statistical evidence to the contrary.

In 1998, a senior Dept. of Labor official wrote that beryllium workers had a 10 percent lifetime risk of becoming ill under the current exposure limits. In response, OSHA promised to issue a more protective standard by the end of 2001. Then came the Bush administration.

In November 2002, OSHA issued a new request for information for future beryllium regulation, in response to data, produced by industry scientists, suggesting beryllium disease might have to do with particle size and other factors.

“In short, when the accumulation of scientific evidence became so great that it was no longer credible to deny the existence of CBD [chronic beryllium disease] cases caused by levels below the old standard, the industry came up with new reasons to delay the issuance of a stronger standard,” Michaels writes. “They manufactured still more uncertainty.”

In the meantime, international agencies, whose standards are employed in Europe and elsewhere, have limits well below OSHA’s. This is part and parcel of what investigative reporter Mark Schapiro has noted in a recent book: Europe is leaving the United States in the dust when it comes to health and environmental regulation, a topic I’ll address in a later story.

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