Industry Groups Used Cherry-Picked Science to Avoid Regulation of Chromium

Photo: JJ Harrison/CC BY-SA 2.5 (Wikimedia)

An industry trade association, The Chrome Coalition, funded studies with shoddy methods in an attempt to weaken regulations that protect workers from the toxic heavy metal hexavalent chromium.

Chromium is a metal used in making steel, for chrome plating, in the manufacture of dyes, and for preserving leather and wood. Ingesting or inhaling even trace amounts of chromium dust—hexavalent chromium oxide, also known as chromium 6—has been found to cause severe health effects and is linked to several types of cancer.

Despite these known health impacts, some companies have opposed efforts since 1993 by the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to set more stringent exposure standards for hexavalent chromium.

One industry trade group has tried to skirt regulation by funding questionable scientific studies with results favorable to the industry. Between 1996 and 2008, Industrial Health Foundation, the legal arm of the Chrome Coalition—a trade association representing chrome producers and consumers—hired third parties to produce at least 18 epidemiological studies or reviews of the safety of chromium, all of which minimized the risk of disease related to chromium exposure.

In 2005, one such industry-funded study used small sample sizes and statistical maneuvering to obscure the link between hexavalent chromium and cancer. The analysis actively hid scientific data about exposure levels in four chromium plants that would have revealed that even exposure levels 50 times lower than the allowed standard resulted in a five-fold increase in deaths from lung cancer. Instead of reporting this information, scientists from Environ, the consulting firm hired to complete the analysis, divided the data into two sets and changed the way workers were grouped to obscure the finding so that they found an increased risk of cancer only in those exposed to the highest levels of chromium.

Trade associations such as Specialty Steel Industry of North America (a member of the Chrome Coalition) cited the study they had commissioned to counter proposed regulations,saying that OSHA’s failure to consider the results of the research would be “arbitrary and capricious”—code for a potential legal challenge. In 2006, OSHA did issue a stricter standard for hexavalent chromium, albeit one insufficiently protective of all workers thanks to the Chrome Coalition’s persistent and effective disinformation campaign.

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