Cong. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) held a hearing on June 25 on the federal government’s response to the hazardous air contaminants that polluted lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks.  The featured witness was former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who was in the hot seat for her claims that the air in NYC was safe to breathe.  Much less attention was paid to former OSHA assistant secretary John Henshaw, who sat next to Whitman, but was left largely unscathed by the questioning.  At least one Henshaw exchange deserves attention.  The former OSHA chief insisted there are “safe levels of exposure to asbestos.”

Cong. Bobby Scott (D-VA) asked:

Mr Henshaw, you mentioned the fact that asbestos was detected [in NYC air on 9/11] and it was over a certain level.  Are there safe levels of asbestos?

Mr. Henshaw: 

Yes sir there are safe levels of asbestos.  We have an occupational safety and health [standard,] what we call a permissible exposure limit which is 0.1 fiber/cc of air for an 8-hour average.  That is our current standard with respect to asbestos.

Cong. Scott:

And you consider that safe?

Mr. Henshaw:

Yes, sir I do.

The problem with Mr. Henshaw’s declaration about the safety of the 0.1 fiber/cc permissible exposure limit (PEL) is that OSHA itself has never asserted that this is a SAFE level of asbestos exposure.  In fact, the agency’s own risk assessment for its its 1984 proposed rule on asbestos acknowledged that there is still an excess risk of cancer even at the 0.1 fiber/cc PEL  (49 Federal Register 14116.)  Specifically OSHA estimated 3.4 excess deaths per 1,000 workers from lung cancer, mesothelioma, and gastrointestinal cancer at the 0.1 PEL for individuals exposed over a 45-year working lifetime.  (Also, the 3.4 excess deaths per 1,000 workers did not include mortality from asbestosis or other cancers.)  As is the case for most OSHA standards, the PEL is driven by what is deemed “economically and technologically feasible” for employers; it is not set at a level that has been determined safe.

Mr. Henshaw’s opinion that there is a “safe level of asbestos exposure” is out of step with the leading scientific and public health organizations.  The World Health Organization and the Institute of Medicine, for example, have concluded that there is no evidence to say there is a safe level of asbestos exposure.  Perhaps Mr. Henshaw’s views are influenced by his post-OSHA affiliation with ChemRisk, a firm that’s been assisting users of asbestos-containing products to fight lawsuits brought by exposed and injured workers. 

[If you Google “Henshaw and Associates” choice number one will be his CV posted on ChemRisk’s website.  (if it goes missing, I’ve preserved it here.)] 

David Michaels has written frequently about these product-defense firms, most recently on their efforts to be appointed to an EPA advisory committee on asbestos. (Don’t Let Mercenaries Advise EPA (5/17/07) and More on EPA Asbestos Panel (5/22/07))   

Watching Mr. Henshaw at Cong. Nadler’s June 25 hearing made me reflect on the state of occupational health and safety in the US.   We’re still debating whether asbestos is dangerous??  And similar time-wasting debates will take place about silica, beryllium, coal-mine dust and noise? 

God help the food-production workers who are exposed to diacetyl, the health care workers exposed to chemotherapeutic agents, and the mechanics and drivers exposed to diesel-particulate matter.  “So sorry, were busy deciding whether asbestos is safe.” 


FYI: The WHO’s policy statement on the elimination of asbestos-related disease is here and the Institute of Medicine’s report on Asbestos: Selected Cancers (2007) is here