Updated Workplace Carcinogen Policy Emphasizes Elimination

By Sam Pearson

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is moving toward a more protective approach in evaluating carcinogens under a new policy for cancer-causing chemicals published Dec. 27.

The carcinogen policy, in the works since 2010, changes how NIOSH classifies carcinogens and sets recommended exposure limits for chemicals in the workplace.

“Underlying this policy is the recognition that there is no known safe level of exposure to a carcinogen, and therefore that reduction of worker exposure to chemical carcinogens as much as possible through elimination or substitution of engineering controls is the primary way to prevent occupational cancer,” NIOSH Director John Howard wrote in the document.

The new policy states that NIOSH publications will seek to use existing cancer hazard assessments from other organizations like the National Toxicology Program, Environmental Protection Agency or the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

The plan “will increase efficiency and allow us to focus our resources on estimating the magnitude of the risk a chemical poses to workers and recommendations for mitigating those risks,” NIOSH spokeswoman Christina Spring said in a Dec. 27 e-mail to Bloomberg BNA.

The document also changes the risk threshold NIOSH will use while developing recommended exposure limits after a 2014 proposal drew criticism. The proposal called for a benchmark of one cancer case per 1,000 workers exposed, but the agency upped the threshold to one per 10,000 workers in the final document in response to public comments. These limits will be called Risk Management Limits for Carcinogens, or RML-CA, to emphasize that the levels are only “an initial starting point for control,” the document said.

Policy Draws Split Reaction

The approach is seen as more protective of worker health, but has prompted concerns from industry organizations.

In public comments filed with NIOSH in 2014, Kimberly Wise, a senior director at the American Chemistry Council, warned that the group “does not find this approach consistent with ensuring the consideration of all high quality scientific evidence.”

Wise wrote that NIOSH should instead use a weight-of-evidence approach to evaluate possible carcinogens and conduct its own evaluations of research from other agencies before using it.

The policy states that NIOSH will review every hazard assessment to determine if every chemical meets its criteria as an occupational carcinogen.

Adam Finkel, a clinical professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and a former OSHA official, told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 28 that the changes are important but not likely to change much in the field in the short term.

“Unfortunately, it really depends on whether they have the funding and the latitude from the next administration to do what I think they and or OSHA should have been doing for the last 30 years,” Finkel said, “which is to not just write down how they’re going to make exposure limits but actually develop exposure limits.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Pearson in Washington at spearson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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