Shortly before the 48th Super Bowl, Hall of Famer and former Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Rayfield Wright acknowledged publicly for the first time that he suffers from dementia. “If something’s wrong with you, you try to hide it,” he told the New York Times’ Juliet Macur, explaining why he had concealed his problems.
Wright, who sustained more concussions than he could count during his football career, is one of more than 4,500 players who have sued the NFL for hiding what it knew about the health risks from repeated head trauma. The NFL has agreed to pay $765 million to settle the suit, but Judge Anita B. Brody is questioning whether that amount will be adequate to cover the players’ anticipated costs from dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and other neurological problems. In another Times piece, Alan Schwarz summarizes some of the research findings on elevated rates of neurological conditions among former football players and calculates that the costs could reach $1 billion or more.
With football-related medical problems in the news, it’s hardly surprising that some college football players are seeking union representation. Players at Northwestern University have filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to gain union recognition. In These Times’ Alex Lubben notes that the NCAA’s emphasis on college players’ “student athletes” status has kept them from receiving wages or salaries and workers’ compensation for occupational injuries and illnesses. With union representation, players could bargain with the NCAA for a better deal.
In other news:
WVNSTV (West Virginia): The collapse of two cell towers at an SBA Communications site in Harrison County, WV, killed tower workers Kyle Kirkpatrick (32) and Terry Lee Richard, Jr. (27), as well as volunteer firefighter Michael Dale Garrett (28). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating.
NPR: As industrial chemical incidents continue to kill workers and contaminate communities, the Chemical Safety Board still has a budget and staff that are tiny compared to those of other federal agencies. It doesn’t have the authority to issue citations, and its non-binding regulations often remain unimplemented.
Press & Sun-Bulletin (New York): Scientists from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and health presented new research findings about the health of former employees of the IBM plant in Endicott. They found that workers with greater exposures to the chemicals TCE and PCE had higher death rates from some cancers.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health: Around 30% of injuries and illnesses involving days away from work are association with repetitive motion or overexertion. Many resources exist to help employers prevent musculoskeletal disorders.
The News (Pakistan): Advocates have mounted a national campaign to get asbestos banned in Pakistan. Worldwide, 150,000 people die each year due to asbestos-related diseases, according to the World Health Organisation.
“The incident could have been prevented” – Community frustrations on display at Chemical Safety Board meeting on 2010 Tesoro Anacortes refinery explosion
The city of Anacortes – population about 16,000 – sits on shores of Fidalgo Island, the eastern-most island in the San Juan archipelago, the string of islands clustered off the northwest coast of Washington State. Located at the western end of Skagit County, known regionally for its agriculture, Anacortes’ petrochemical plants – Tesoro and Shell refineries and a chemical plant recently acquired by the Canadian company ChemTrade — together make up the city’s largest single-industry employer. On a rainy January evening, smoke plumes from these plants that sit near the water’s edge merge with low-hanging clouds above the bay.
On April 2, 2010, at 12:30 a.m., a heat exchanger in the Naptha Hydrotreater unit at Tesoro’s Anacortes petroleum refinery ruptured catastrophically, causing an explosion and fire that killed seven Tesoro employees: Daniel J. Aldridge, Matthew C. Bowen, Darrin J. Hoines, Matt Gumbel, Lew Charles Janz, Kathryn Powell, and Donna Van Dreumel. The workers had been in the final stages of preparing to restart the unit’s heat exchangers after several had been shut down for cleaning. The highly flammable hydrogen and naptha that were released at temperatures above 500ºF ignited explosively and burned intensely for more than three hours.
The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) draft final report investigating the incident, released to the public the evening of January 29, 2014, concludes that several factors set the stage for the disastrous event: severely cracked and degraded equipment that resulted in frequent leaks of flammable liquid and occasional fires; weak industry standards; a deficient refinery safety culture and an inadequate oversight and regulatory system.
Specifically, the CSB investigation found that a type of damage known as High Temperature Hydrogen Attack (HTHA) created cracks and fissures in the heat exchanger’s carbon steel that eventually caused the catastrophic break. The CSB report faults the American Petroleum Institute (API) standards that allowed such equipment to remain in use and notes the technical difficulties of inspecting for HTHA damage. Such inspection is, says the CSB, low in the hierarchy of controls – the tiered priority of safety measures – and that inherently safer design is the best approach to preventing HTHA.
The report also faults Tesoro and the refinery’s previous owner, Shell Oil, for inadequate implementation of safeguards that could have identified hazards and protected against HTHA and subsequent equipment failure. Instead of making changes that would have averted these problems, CSB said the refinery responded to them with procedures that exacerbated the potential for danger. The report additionally points to deficiencies in Washington state’s resources for oversight as well as inadequacies in US federal regulations that allow such problems to persist without correction.
CSB recommendations of what’s needed to prevent such incidents from occurring include: revision of API standards for equipment susceptible to HTHA and requirements for use of inherently safer design; revision of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Chemical Accident Prevention Provisions to require the documented use of inherently safer systems; improved oversight by Washington State and implementation of a process safety culture program at the Tesoro Anacortes Refinery that includes third-party oversight.
“This incident could have been prevented,” said CSB lead investigator Dan Tillema, presenting the report at a public meeting held to present the report in Anacortes on January 30, 2014.
Report finalization postponed
When first announced, the January 30 meeting – held in the Anacortes High School auditorium – was to include a vote by the CSB board that would finalize the CSB report on the incident and the agency’s recommendations to prevent similar problems in the future. But a week before the meeting, the CSB announced that instead of a CSB Board vote on the 30th, the draft final report would be released for a 45-day comment period and the meeting would be a “public listening session.”
While this may seem like an arcane detail, it was clear from the comments voiced by community members in Anacortes on January 30th that they were not happy the that nearly four-year long CBS investigation process would be prolonged.
“I’m very frustrated… by how long it’s taken,” said Steve Garey, machinist and President of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 12-591. According to USW members at the January 30th meeting, the majority of refinery workers in Anacortes are represented by United Steelworkers Local 12-591. “The owner operators have the responsibility to manage a safe workplace…they have that responsibility regardless of how capable the regulators are,” Garey said. “The entire industry is not doing what they should be doing…that’s why we had seven killed at Tesoro, that’s why we had 15 killed at Texas City eight years ago, that’s why we had 11 killed in the Gulf of Mexico…”
“Seven families were devastated,” said Ryan Anderson, a maintenance employee at the Tesoro Anacortes refinery. “Our community was devastated. For almost four years we’ve waited for a final CSB report. We’re still waiting,” he said.
USW safety and health specialist Kim Nibarger, who came from Pittsburgh to attend the meeting, called the change “troubling.”
In their remarks, USW and other community members asked CSB to return to Ancortes to hold the final vote on the investigation report. CSB director Rafael Moure-Eraso made no promises but explained that all public comments would be taken into consideration, and would be used to improve the report before it is finalized. “You are the most important stakeholders,” he told those gathered in Anacortes on January 30th.
Worth noting is that the CSB, the independent federal agency tasked with investigating industrial chemical accidents, is chronically under-resourced. As West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller noted in a press release issued as the CSB began to investigate the January 2014 Freedom Industries chemical leak, “the agency’s proposed 2014 budget was slashed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives earlier this year,” cutting nearly $2 million from the CSB’s roughly $11 million budget. The CSB currently has more than a dozen investigations underway and a staff of about 40.
Ongoing safety concerns
Until the report is finalized, the CSB’s recommendations are also not final. If implemented, those in the Tesoro Anacortes report could make significant improvements in refinery safety, not just at the Tesoro facility but at refineries across the country. As many who spoke in Anacortes on the night of January 30th made clear – as does the CSB report – without these changes, workers at refineries nationwide may well be working under conditions with hazards similar to those present at the Tesoro Anacortes refinery on April 2, 2010.
“We’re still getting hurt out there,” said Maria Howling Wolf, a Tesoro Anacortes employee who vividly recounted the day of the catastrophe as it unfolded.
Families of six of the workers killed brought a wrongful death suit against Tesoro and the Shell Oil Company, the previous owner of the Tesoro refinery, that was settled in December 2013 for a reported $39 million. Tesoro has also been fined a record $2.39 million by the Washington Department of Labor and Industries, which cited Tesoro for 39 “willful” and five “serious” violations of state health and safety standards. Tesoro is appealing the Washington state fine and has, in a preliminary ruling, been granted a judgment potentially reducing the $2.39 million fine to $858,500. A previous OSHA investigation opened in 2008 found 17 serious violations but in negotiations 14 were “deleted” and the penalty fine reduced from $85,700 to $12,250.
Speaking at the January 30th meeting, API representative David Miller said his industry is “committed to continuous improvement” and has a “long history of safe operation” and that “no incident is acceptable.”
Tesoro said in a statement sent the next day: “Tesoro deeply regrets the incident of that day. Our thoughts and prayers remain with the families and friends of our seven co-workers who lost their lives.” Tesoro said the company “acknowledges the efforts of the CSB investigation teams” but said, “We respectfully disagree with several findings in the draft report and, most importantly, take exception to CSB’s inaccurate depiction of our process safety culture. However, despite any disagreements regarding the draft report, Tesoro anticipates discussing the CSB’s recommendations with the agency once the report is finalized and will consider them in light of the steps we have taken and are continuing to take to improve the safety of our facilities.”
Speaking after the meeting, USW member Gaylen Prescott expressed concern about ongoing management pressure to keep the employee numbers down and resulting work loads and hours that can erode workplace safety. “We relied on hope and luck,” said USW Local 12-591 member George Welch in his comment for the record.
Toward the end of the January 30th meeting’s public comment period, an older man stood to speak. “My name is Eustus Ken Powell,” he said. “My daughter was one of the ones who was killed …my life was forever changed.”
The draft final CSB report is open for comment until March 16, 2014.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Ensia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.
MSHA recently issued two fatality investigation reports for incidents at quarries involving haulage trucks. Both incidents, one in Missouri and the other in Pennsylvania, occurred in September 2013. The reports caught my attention in particular because both include this statement:
“Additionally, he was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the haul truck which contributed to the severity of his injuries.”
What do we know, or not know, about why some workers fail to wear their seatbelts?
First, here are a few details about the fatalities:
One involved a 1980 Caterpillar 773B haul truck. The driver, David A. Gully, 58, was traveling from the pit of a quarry up an unpaved haulage road with an 8 percent grade. The berm along the roadway consisted only of large boulders spaced 4-5 feet apart. When the truck maneuvered too far to the left, the berm was inadequate to prevent the vehicle from plummeting hundreds of feet over a highwall. (I’ll set aside my question about why the MSHA inspection, just a month earlier, did not identify the inadequate berm.)
The other involved a 1983 Jeep M35A2 cargo truck. Timothy Farr, 31, was using the truck to haul four 250-gallon water containers. He maneuvered the vehicle up the unpaved roadway, which had a 25 percent grade and three switchbacks. One of the containers fell off the truck, the load shifted, and the truck’s wheels lost traction. The vehicle moved backwards, the remaining water containers shifted and the truck overturned. The investigators found that the brakes on the truck had not been maintained and the containers had not been secured on the truck.
No one knows with certainty whether the workers would have survived these incidents had they been wearing their seatbelts. MSHA’s statement “contributed to the severity of his injuries” suggest that might be the case. So why don’t some workers wear their seatbelts?
A study by Kim and Yamashita, published in 2007 in Accident Analysis & Prevention identified two key reasons given by 791 commercial drivers in Hawaii for not consistently wearing a seatbelt: (1) they are uncomfortable, and (2) they are inconvenient for drivers who have to make frequent stops (e.g., to make deliveries.)
A study by Schlundt and colleagues examined the relationship between BMI and seatbelt use. They reported a decrease in seatbelt use as the BMI of drivers increased. They found this trend for all age groups, except among 16-24 year olds.
I few years back another fatality investigation report prepared by MSHA caught my attention. It also involved a worker who did not wear his seatbelt. Robert C. Stewart, 28, was killed in September 2009 at ASARCO’s Ray (copper) mine in Gila County, Arizona. He was operating a 1997 Komatsu 830E dump truck when it struck a berm. When the truck overturned, Stewart fell from the cab and suffered fatal injuries. Like the two cases above, MSHA’s fatality investigation report indicated that failure to wear a seatbelt “contributed to the severity of his injuries.” I wondered why Mr. Stewart was not wearing the seatbelt. I considered reasons such as the following:
- Was the window on the cab open (that he fell from) because the air conditioning on the truck wasn’t working? MSHA’s report notes it was 80 degrees outside.
- The cab of the truck is about 20 feet off the ground. These monster trucks can have poor visibility. Without blind-spot cameras, did he need to remove his seatbelt in order to see out and around the truck and the roadway?
After near-miss incidents and work-related fatalities occur, investigators typically focus on the “cause” of the incident: Was the equipment not maintained? Were operating procedures inadequate? Had safety equipment been tampered?
But if investigators really want to get to the bottom of what happened, they also need to ask “but why?” But why was the equipment not maintained? But why has the safety equipment been tampered?
In the three fatal work-related injuries noted above, the victims were not wearing their seatbelts. MSHA concluded that this fact contributed to the severity of their injuries. But why weren’t they wearing them?
- If a worker is too large for the manufactured installed seatbelt, was a belt extender provided?
- If a worker finds the seatbelt is uncomfortable or slows them down from getting their deliveries made on time, could the worker and his employer figure out a way to remedy the situation so the seatbelt is worn dutifully?
- If the two-story high haulage truck has blind spots and the worker needs to unbuckle his seatbelt to see what’s around him, could visibility cameras be installed to rectify the problem?
- Is there simply a segment of the population who are stubborn and won’t wear a seatbelt no matter what intervention is tried?
When I read fatality investigation reports and I learn that the driver wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, my first reaction is often: “Really? No seatbelt?” But I also know that we certainly should do more to find out why some workers don’t wear them. I’d like to see us asking that now, rather than wondering why after the worker is dead.
In a first-of-its-kind study, a researcher has estimated that the health-related economic savings of removing bisphenol A from our food supply is a whopping $1.74 billion annually. And that’s a conservative estimate.
“This study is a case in point of the economic burden borne by society due to the failure to regulate environmental chemicals in a proactive way,” study author Leonardo Trasande told me.
With evidence mounting that bisphenol A (BPA) exposure is a serious health risk, Trasande, an associate professor in pediatrics, environmental medicine and health policy at New York University, wanted to examine the economic trade-offs of replacing BPA with a safer alternative. BPA, a synthetic compound used in plastics and found in the lining of food and beverage containers, has been identified as an endocrine disruptor and linked to cancer, asthma, fertility outcomes, adverse neurobehavioral development, obesity promotion and cardiovascular risks.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned the chemical in baby bottles and sippy cups, it’s still used in food cans and drink packaging. According to Trasande’s study, which was published in the February issue of Health Affairs, more than a million pounds of BPA is produced every year. The chemical is so common that “exposure to BPA in the United States is nearly ubiquitous: In a nationally representative sample, 92.6 percent of people ages six and older had detectable BPA in their urine,” he wrote. Trasande also cited a 2011 study that found that eating one serving of canned soup a day over five days was associated with a more than 1000 percent increase in urinary BPA.
To uncover the economic benefit of replacing BPA, Trasande zeroed in on the social costs of childhood obesity and adult coronary heart disease attributable to food-related BPA exposure in the United States in 2008. Based on BPA research findings, he estimated that BPA exposure was associated with 12,404 cases of childhood obesity and more than 33,800 cases of new coronary heart disease that year, totaling $2.98 billion in social costs. Removing BPA from food packaging, the study estimated, could prevent about 6,200 cases of childhood obesity and 22,350 cases of coronary heart disease each year, totaling an economic yearly benefit of $1.74 billion.
Also, of the 12,404 obese children, more than 9,400 were estimated to remain obese into adulthood, which creates an additional $489 million in health care costs and $972 million in lost quality-adjusted life years, which is way of measuring the impact of disease burden. In all, $2.98 billion in annual costs are attributable to BPA-related childhood obesity and heart disease.
Trasande’s study also weighed the cost savings of removing BPA from food items against the cost of replacing the chemical with oleoresin, a plant-based mixture of oil and resin that might be safer than BPA. He found that replacing BPA in aluminum cans would cost about $2.2 billion each year, which would be borne by manufacturers and consumers via higher prices, “whereas the costs of obesity and coronary heart disease attributable to BPA are borne by multiple sectors of society.” Trasande emphasized that premarket testing of a BPA substitute is necessary to avoid additional, or even worse, health outcomes. He wrote:
Newer economic models are also needed to account for uncertainty in disease causation, so that trade-offs involved in decisions such as whether to remove BPA from food uses can be weighed more carefully in spite of incomplete understanding of the health consequences. These newer approaches will be especially important in informing regulations of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Information on the costs of their ongoing use, however incomplete, is needed because of the broad public health effects of these chemicals.
Unfortunately, the true economic health cost of BPA is probably much higher, Trasande said, as his study only examined two of the health impacts to which BPA has been linked.
“Our findings suggest that further regulation by FDA may produce substantial economic benefits to society,” he told me. “In addition to promoting diet and behavioral change, which can be difficult to implement and make persistent, regulatory action can be done by government agencies without much in the way of additional economic investment.”
Right now, FDA considers BPA safe at the “very low levels that occur in some foods,” though Trasande noted that the assumed safety threshold for BPA has not been documented in any study. The agency has initiated a number of studies examining the safety of BPA, but it’s hard to say if FDA even has all the information it needs to really determine safe exposure levels. According to FDA’s own website, “today there exist hundreds of different formulations for BPA-containing epoxy linings, which have varying characteristics. As currently regulated, manufacturers are not required to disclose to FDA the existence or nature of these formulations.” (Just this month across the proverbial pond, the European Food Safety Authority recommended lowering current tolerable daily intakes of BPA.)
Trasande said the findings of his study weren’t surprising considering the costs of child obesity and cardiovascular disease, “but what is surprising is to hear the counter-arguments that replacing BPA could introduce increases in food-borne illnesses, which is simply not true. …that’s an unscientific claim.” (That food-borne illness argument is from the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, which addressed Trasande’s study in a Jan. 23 news release.)
While policy changes would have the biggest impact on BPA exposure, people can take individual action, too. Trasande noted that some studies have suggested that eliminating aluminum canned-food in favor of fresh food can reduce urinary BPA levels between 66 and 92 percent. He said that while many factors contribute to childhood obesity and cardiovascular disease, stricter BPA regulation could offer the opportunity for “rapid and substantial reductions” in disease burden.
“There is great potential for health benefits through changing behaviors to reduce ongoing BPA exposure,” Trasande said. “But it may actually be quite beneficial to society to replace BPA and institute a more pervasive ban on its use in foods.”
To read Trasande’s full BPA study, visit Health Affairs.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Should I Drink Potentially Toxic Water? WV Gov. Says, "It's Your Decision" (Huffington Post, 1/28/14)
“Millions of Americans use antibacterial hand soap and body wash products. Although consumers generally view these products as effective tools to help prevent the spread of germs, there is currently no evidence that they are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water,” wrote the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in issuing a proposed rule last month. “Further, some data suggest that long-term exposure to certain active ingredients used in antibacterial products—for example, triclosan (liquid soaps) and triclocarban (bar soaps)—could pose health risks, such as bacterial resistance or hormonal effects.” Because of these potential risks, FDA’s proposed rule requires manufacturers to demonstrate that their antibacterial personal care soap products are safe for long-term daily use and more effective in preventing illness and the spread of certain infections than plain soap and water.
But triclosan and triclocarban and the soap products mentioned in the FDA’s press release are far from the only antibacterial products in use. In fact, one industry analysis estimates the US market for disinfectant and antibacterial chemicals to be worth at least $1 billion annually and to be growing steadily, as it has been for the past ten years. Among the types of antibacterials whose use is growing most rapidly are quaternary ammonia compounds (quats). These compounds, of which there are many (a commonly used one is benzalkonium chloride), are used in countless cleaning products – including everyday household cleaning products, liquid hand soaps, hand wipes and products used by professional cleaning services.
The increased use of antibacterial cleaning products has been propelled by increasing concern and anxiety about infectious disease, food-borne pathogens and healthcare-associated infections. “There are settings where there is a role for antimicrobials,” explains Elise Pechter, an industrial hygienist who runs the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Occupational Surveillance Program. But increasingly, questions are being raised about where and when it’s appropriate to use such disinfectants and when cleaning products without antibacterials might do the job just was well – and without undesirable side effects.
“We’ve become a germo-phobic society,” says Pechter. The public, she said, has increasingly become convinced “that a surface isn’t clean unless it is also disinfected.”
Consumer concern has focused on triclosan, an ingredient in many hand soaps, body washes, and other products. Scientific studies suggest that triclosan may interfere with hormones and can persist in wastewater. But quats, which may appear on product labels under many different names, have been of concern to those studying occupational health for some time.
Quats and asthma
Quats may not be getting as much media attention as triclosan, but a growing number of scientific studies conducted over the past ten years link exposure to quats with adverse respiratory effects, particularly for those who use them professionally. Epidemiological surveys of cleaning workers worldwide are consistently showing increased incidence and prevalence of asthma among cleaning workers, both those working in healthcare and non-medical settings, including homes. These studies also suggest that cleaning products can both prompt and exacerbate asthma. “There’s a pretty convincing body of evidence that they are asthmagens,” Pechter says of quats.
University of Massachusetts Professor of Work Environment Margaret Quinn, who has been studying the health effects of occupational exposure to cleaning products, explains that respiratory distress and irritation – both among people with previous asthmatic conditions and those without – are reported frequently. Some people exposed to cleaning products in healthcare settings have had reactions serious enough to warrant medical attention, with some visiting an emergency room.
A study of hospital workers in Belgium published in September found that the asthma symptoms experienced by a substantial number of these workers in reaction to cleaning products were consistent with the respiratory effects produced by sensitizing asthmagens. This study concluded that quaternary ammonia compounds are the principal cause of sensitizer-induced occupational asthma among cleaning workers. This study is also the first to show how exposure to these cleaning products can change lung function and sputum (the mucus and saliva typically produced in response to a respiratory infection or irritation) and produce inflammation in internal airways.
Given the concern about infectious disease spread, including healthcare acquired infections, use of quats has become increasingly widespread – not only in medically sensitive locations but on floors and other hard surfaces public spaces. Quats, like many other antibacterial products, are classified as pesticides. Yet both Pechter and Quinn explained that there are no clear guidelines to help determine where disinfection with products that contain such pesticides should be used to prevent disease spread but at the same time protect those exposed to the products and the environment from any unwanted ancillary effects.
What’s also come to occupational health professionals’ attention is the fact that antibacterial cleaning products – including those containing quats – may not be clearly labeled to alert users to potential health effects and that cleaning products are often used in professional settings after being decanted into unlabeled containers. Pechter and Quinn also note that to be effective and actually kill germs as intended, these products need to be used according to directions, which doesn’t always happen.
More research is needed, says Quinn to better understand the potential for infection to occur as a result of people touching hard surfaces previously touched by people carrying an infectious disease. More research is also needed to better understand how the widespread use of antibacterials may be contributing to the rise of such drug-resistant bacteria. There are also questions about the environmental and health effects of such widespread destruction of microbes and whether this might be contributing to the rise in allergies or other health disorders.
Another dilemma is the question of replacement chemicals. Alexandra Scranton, science and research director at Women’s Voices for the Earth, points out that some products that had previously contained triclosan now contain a quaternary ammonia compound: benzalkonium chloride. This includes widely used liquid hand soaps commonly found on sink counters in offices, schools, restaurants and homes across the US. Quinn says more data is needed on replacement products – both antibacterial agents and alternate technologies, other ways of effectively killing germs when needed without adverse environmental and health effects.
Because they are considered pesticides, antibacterial agents like quats must be registered with EPA, which has extensive guidelines and requirements for determining their effectiveness in killing pathogens. What EPA does not require, however, is a test that would determine if these compounds or the products that contain them are asthmagens. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have produced a fact-sheet and poster about health hazards of cleaning products, including respiratory hazards, but they do not include specific details about product ingredients apart from cautioning against mixing bleach and ammonia. (A NIOSH spokesperson explained that the agency’s work on this issue is ongoing.) The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has a database of cleaning product ingredients and health effects, but it includes only a fraction of the products that contain quats and a fraction of those that contain other potential asthmagens.
Meanwhile, as it’s becoming increasingly clear that quats are respiratory irritants that can induce or worsen asthma, they are also being used in an increasing number of products. Knowledge of health risks associated with quats should encourage them to be used judiciously, especially as we don’t know enough about where we really need to be killing germs – and what the effects of eradicating 99 percent of most microbes present (as so many of these product promise) really are.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Ensia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.
In last night’s State of the Union speech, President Obama addressed several ways to “make sure our economy honors the dignity of work, and hard work pays off for every single American.” Here’s what he said about wage increases:
To every mayor, governor, state legislator in America, I say, you don’t have to wait for Congress to act; Americans will support you if you take this on. And as a chief executive, I intend to lead by example. Profitable corporations like Costco see higher wages as the smart way to boost productivity and reduce turnover. We should too. In the coming weeks I will issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour because if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you should not have to live in poverty.
Of course, to reach millions more, Congress does need to get on board. Today the federal minimum wage is worth about twenty percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan first stood here. And Tom Harkin and George Miller have a bill to fix that by lifting the minimum wage to $10.10. It’s easy to remember: 10.10. This will help families. It will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It does not involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise. Give ‘em a raise.
As Kim Krisberg reported here last week, several states and the District of Columbia have recently passed bills raising their minimum wages, and advocates are campaigning for increases in several other states. Wonkblog’s Brad Plumer has the details on Obama’s proposal to raise wages for federal-contract workers and its likely impact; he notes that it will only affect future contracts, not existing ones, so workers won’t see an immediate pay increase. By some estimates, he writes, around 200,000 contracted workers could eventually benefit.
Also on the topic of low pay, Obama noted that women still get paid only 77% of what men do, and stated, “Women deserve equal pay for equal work.” He then highlighted the ways inadequate medical- and family-leave policies harm women workers:
You know, she deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship. And you know what, a father does too. It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode. This year let’s all come together, Congress, the White House, businesses from Wall Street to Main Street, to give every woman the opportunity she deserves, because I believe when women succeed, America succeeds.
On sick and family leave, too, local and state governments have not waited for Congress to address the problem. Just this week, Newark, New Jersey’s City Council approved a paid-sick-leave ordinance. Connecticut, San Francisco, the District of Columbia, Seattle, Portland, New York City, and Jersey City have all passed laws requiring employers to let workers earn paid sick leave. Several statewide campaigns for paid sick days are also underway.
Paid sick days, as well as longer-term leave for medical conditions requiring more than a couple of days off work, aren’t just good for the individual workers who might otherwise have to choose between healthy recuperation and pay. They’re also good for public health. When people are able to stay home from work to recover from an illness, or to care for a child who might otherwise be sent to school or day care while sick, the rest of us have a lower risk of catching diseases from them. At its most recent annual meeting, the American Public Health Association adopted a policy statement urging Congressional action — or, in its absence, state and local action — to expand US workers’ access to paid sick days and paid medical and family leave.
Congress could certainly take action to address inadequate leave policies. Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Rosa DeLauro reintroduced the Healthy Families Act, which would allow workers to earn paid sick leave. Last month, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro introduced the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act, or FAMILY Act, which would alleviate some of the difficulties workers face in addressing their own or a loved one’s health problem. The FAMILY Act would create a social insurance system akin to those operating in California and New Jersey (and soon to be operating in Rhode Island). With funds from a small payroll tax ($1.50 per week from the average worker), it would replace up to two-thirds of a worker’s pay when she or he needs to take time off to deal with a serious health condition, bond with a new child, or care for a family member with a serious medical problem. Workers would be able to take up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave a year.
If Congress doesn’t act on these minimum-wage and paid-leave bills, I expect we’ll keep seeing more cities and states pass their own legislation to address these issues. I’ve been delighted to see my own city of Washington, DC raise our minimum wage and require employers to offer paid sick days. Seeing such laws implemented on a smaller scale can demonstrate feasibility to national lawmakers; for instance, California’s successful social insurance system for paid medical and family leave bolsters the case for passing the FAMILY Act.
At some point, though, it only makes sense for Congress to act, instead of waiting for each state to design its own slightly different system to assure that low-wage workers can earn a decent living and take time off when they’re sick. National action on the minimum wage and on paid sick, medical, and family leave would help us achieve the dream President Obama gave voice to in his address: building a country in which “opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us.”
Several recent newspaper editorials have gotten under USDA’s skin. Editors at the Charlotte Observer, Raleigh News Observer, Bellingham (WA) Herald and Gaston (NC) Gazette are skeptical that the USDA’s plan to “modernize” the poultry slaughter inspection process is a wise move.
In “Fed’s proposed shift in poultry rules troubling,” the Charlotte Observer’s editorial board wrote this on January 20:
“Warning horns should blast full force around the Obama administration approving a change in federal law to replace most federal inspectors on poultry processing lines with company workers who would watch for problems. Worker advocates’ concerns that such a change would be a risk to both food and worker safety have considerable merit. … A 2008 Observer series about working conditions in the poultry industry highlighted the problems of allowing companies to self-report on injuries at their plants. Our series found employers failing to report injuries that they should, and workers afraid they’d be fired if they reported such injuries. This change could have both following the same pattern with troubling consequences for all of us.”
On Janaury 24 in “Don’t let poultry-processing industry police itself,” Bellingham’s editors wrote:
“Somewhere in that proposal is a joke about letting foxes guard henhouses. We’ll leave that to the Jon Stewarts of the world, but there’s nothing funny about what the proposed changes could mean for American consumers. …Many workers in the industry suffer from repetitive-motion conditions and other work-related injuries but often are reluctant to report them because they need the job so badly. Speeding up processing lines is likely to exacerbate that problem.”
The acting Under Secretary for Food Safety, Brian Ronholm, quickly responded with a letter to the editor. Each of his statements appear below, broken up by my offering of a reality check.
Ronholm: The Observer falsely asserts that USDA’s proposal to modernize poultry inspection would reduce federal oversight of food safety at the expense of consumers and workers.
Reality check: For the last several years, the Obama Administration’s proposed budget for USDA would eliminate 800 poultry inspectors. How does that not reduce federal oversight of food safety?
Ronholm: A 15-year pilot program demonstrates that the proposal would enhance oversight, prevent at least 5,000 food-borne illnesses per year, and not adversely impact worker safety.
Reality check: In August 2013, the Government Accountability Office chastised USDA for asserting that its pilot project demonstrates its proposed changes will be more effective than the current system. GAO found that USDA didn’t even collect and analyze its data to draw such a conclusion. GAO launched the same criticism at USDA in a 2001 report.
Reality check: USDA ignores the evidence about the harsh and dangerous conditions experienced by poultry plant workers. Musculoskeletal disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, plague poultry workers, and line speeds in the plants are a key contributor for these injuries. USDA’s proposal will allow production line speeds to increase from 140 to 175 birds per minute.
Ronholm: It would require industry to prevent contamination and conduct testing at two points to ensure pathogens such as Salmonella are being controlled; currently there are no such requirements.
Reality check: USDA’s plan is for the poultry industry to come up with its own standards for testing pathogens. The industry will even make the decision on how much salmonella is acceptable. On top of that– because the standards will be voluntary–USDA would have no authority to enforce them.
Ronholm: This enhanced inspection process would allow USDA inspectors to focus on critical food safety tasks that would result in lower prevalence of contamination and greater compliance with sanitation requirements.
Reality check: USDA still has not explained how this “enhanced inspection process” is going to occur. How many more sanitation checks will occur per eight hour shift? How many more samples will be taken for food borne pathogens? How many USDA inspectors will be assigned in each plant per shift to perform these additional tasks? Will USDA have the authority to take action against the plant for violating voluntary food safety and wholesomeness standards?
I know the views of newspaper editors may not sway the White House into telling the USDA to ditch its plan. But perhaps the Obama Administration will be convinced by such calls from the Congressional Black Caucus. The group’s chair, Marcia Fudge (D-OH), made clear their position on USDA’s plan. Quoted in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Fudge said:
“Most of the people who work in these plants are women, and they are primarily women of color. We care most about the health of the employees. Right now, it is bad. It will just get worse if they increase the line speed.”