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1. The Deadly Secrets of the Occupational Safety Agency

Source: HEALTH LETTER, Date: March 1994, Title: “Unfinished Business: Occupational Safety Agency Keeps 170,000 Exposed Workers in the Dark About Risks Incurred on Job,” Authors: Peter Lurie, Sidney Wolfe, Susan Goodwin

SYNOPSIS: In the early 1980s, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) com­pleted 69 epidemiological studies that revealed that 240,450 American workers were exposed to hazardous materials at 258 worksites.

Many of the affected workers were unaware that they were being exposed to hazardous substances (such as asbestos, silica and ura­nium) that were determined in those studies to increase the risk of cancer and other serious diseases.

In 1983, NIOSH and the Health and Human Services Department’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that NIOSH had a duty to inform workers of exposure “particularly when NIOSH is the exclusive holder of information and when there is clear evidence of a cause and effect relationship between exposure and health risk.” Obviously, workers who learned they were at risk could undergo screening that could lead to earlier detection of cancer.

Nonetheless, despite the 1983 recommendations of its own scien­tific and ethical experts to notify exposed workers, the Reagan administration refused to fund a $4 million pilot notification program and opposed legislation that would have required such notification.

As a result, by 1994, fewer than 30 percent of the workers, covered by only a handful of studies, have been notified. The Public Citizen’s Health Research Group learned that NIOSH has individually noti­fied a maximum of only 71,180 (29.6%) of the original 240,450 workers, leaving 169,270, more than 60%, still in the dark about health risks from on-the-job exposure.

Follow-up studies done on workers who had been warned about the risks provide evidence that notification is both feasible and potentially lifesaving. Unfor­tunately, the majority of the workers identified in the original studies as being exposed to carcino­gens and other hazards at massive levels continue to be victims-this time of an unethical cover-up that has characterized the federal response to date.

While Public Citizen’s Health Research Group wrote to President Clinton on February 2, 1994, urging him to immediately reverse Reagan-­Bush policies and order acceleration of the notification program, broader media exposure of this issue would no doubt stimulate a faster response. It has been estimated that notification of each individual worker would cost from $150 to $300. Nonetheless, more than 169,000 workers across the U.S. still have not been informed about their deadly exposure to cancer-causing agents despite 10 years of effort on the part of watchdog groups.

SSU Censored Researcher: Susan Kashack

COMMENTS: Co-author Sidney Wolfe felt there was little effective national coverage of the study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). “The bulk of the coverage was local,” Wolfe said, “including several of the radio sta­tions and newspapers in cities or states where the plants were located.” The few national stories that appeared did not indicate which plants and therefore which workers were affected.

Wolfe said the general public would benefit from wider coverage of the study since they would know “whether they, their relatives or acquaintances worked at any of these plants and would now know what types of tests, if any, to be asking their doctors to do or what symptoms to look for to detect dis­ease at an earlier and hence more treatable stage.” National coverage of the subject is necessary, Wolfe added, since many of the 170,000 people involved may not still live near the plant, and/or may have worked there many years ago.

Wolfe noted that it is interesting that this story is coming out while revelations are being made about subjects in radiation experiments who had not known of their expo­sures (as cited in Censored story #6). The Health Letter story emphasizes that unethical, govern­ment-funded research continues today, Wolfe said.

The primary beneficiary of the limited coverage given the issue would be NIOSH, Wolfe said, since there would be limited pressure brought on the organization to increase the snail’s pace at which it is notifying workers. Also benefiting from the lack of coverage would be the plant operators who “certainly do not have an interest in workers knowing that they may have sus­tained injuries as they may file suit against the company. Earlier gov­ernment concerns about companies incurring legal liability thwarted more funding for this government worker notification project.”

Wolfe pointed out that the NIOSH information “was gathered with taxpayer money and the public has a right to know the information. Because NIOSH has taken so long to individually notify people, our hope was to release the list of plants so that the affected people could go to the government and get the information them­selves. In our view,” Wolfe con­cluded, “NIOSH’s notification efforts to date remain inadequate.”

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