On Monday February 4th, I’ll be doing the Public Health Reports’ monthly webcast, discussing the recent article Celeste Monforton and I wrote entitled Beryllium’s “Public Relations Problem”: Protecting Workers When There is No Safe Exposure Level. Here’s some background:

In a 1947 report, entitled Public Relations Problems in Connection with Occupational Diseases in the Beryllium Industry, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) asserted that the ability of the US government to produce nuclear weapons was threatened by the high incidence of severe health effects associated with exposure to beryllium, a metal vital to weapons production. In response, the AEC established a workplace exposure limit that dramatically reduced beryllium disease incidence. This limit is known as the “taxicab standard” since it was determined by two AEC scientists working in the back seat of a taxi on their way to a meeting.

Over the next several decades, however, increasingly powerful evidence accumulated that Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD), a progressive and irreversible inflammatory lung disease, was associated with exposure to levels below the “taxicab standard,” and by the 1990s, scores of workers employed in the production of nuclear weapons had been diagnosed with CBD.

Attempting to prevent strengthened government regulation, and to avoid negative publicity that would discourage use of the metal, the beryllium industry waged a concerted effort over decades to counter the accumulating scientific evidence of beryllium’s toxicity. The industry relied on expert services provided by a major public relations company and a leading ‘product defense’ firm. Eventually, when the scientific evidence became so great that it was no longer credible to deny that workers developed CBD at levels permitted by an out-dated standard, the industry responded with a new rationale for delay: that more research was needed to determine the best standard.

The industry’s efforts have been, for the most part, successful. While each year brings new studies linking CBD with beryllium exposures below the current standard, the “taxicab standard” remains the limit enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in private sector workplaces. New CBD cases have been reported recently in metal recycling facilities. US civilian nuclear weapons workers have greater protection than private sector workers; in 1999 the Department of Energy issued strengthened beryllium regulations, reducing the workplace exposure level that triggers protective action by a factor of 10.

The lessons from this case study for public health policymakers include:

  • The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. The lack of CBD cases in the 1950s should not have been seen as proof the standard was adequate.
  • The interpretation of scientific data by those with financial incentives must be discounted. Industry scientists defended the “taxicab standard” long after it was correctly recognized as inadequate by independent scientists.
  • In particular, work by scientists employed by firms specializing in product defense and litigation support must be seen for what it is: advocacy, rather than science. This study illuminates the practice of “manufacturing uncertainty,” the strategy used by some polluters and manufacturers of hazardous products to prevent or delay regulation or victim compensation.
  • To best protect public health, we must consider the hazards associated with a toxic material through the entire life cycle of the product.

The discussion starts at 2:30 (ET) on Monday, February 4th; no registration or log-in password is necessary to participate. The link for this web cast will be posted at 2 PM on the Public Health Reports website.