NOTE: The following is one of a series of case studies produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program between 2004 and 2010 to document the abuses highlighted in our 2004 report, Scientific Integrity in Policy Making.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) threatened an agency scientist with suspension after he refused to include industry-funded science downplaying the dangers of asbestos in a safety warning for auto mechanics.1 Although the case has since been settled, the censure of this federal employee is a symptom of a larger suppression and distortion of asbestos science due to industry pressures at OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Delays and threats at OSHA
The asbestos warning2, published July 26, 2006, is part of an effort by OSHA to update their workplace safety guidelines for avoiding asbestos exposure during brake and clutch auto maintenance. An estimated 10,000 people die each year from asbestos diseases and asbestos-related cancers (including mesothelioma) in the United States, a number which is expected to increase due to the significant lag between exposure and the onset of asbestos-related disease.3
OSHA scientist Ira Wainless began work on the Asbestos Safety and Health Information Bulletin (SHIB) in April 20044, one month after Congressman Dennis Kucinich released a scathing report on OSHA’s failure to monitor and enforce its existing asbestos regulations for auto mechanics.5 During the drafting of the SHIB, Mr. Wainless repeatedly circulated a draft of the report to his superiors6 and provided them with a through comparison of the pros and cons of releasing the warning, including a review of the current scientific publications regarding asbestos science.7 The document was also thoroughly peer reviewed by other experts within OSHA.8
The report languished in the inbox of David Ippolito, Wainless’s supervisor, and was cancelled in 2005 after meetings between upper staff at OSHA and the White House Office of Management and Budget.9 According to Wainless’s union representative, the SHIB was resurrected in 2006 due to pressures from Senator Patty Murray (D-WA)10, and released that summer.
But three weeks after the release, John Henshaw, a former OSHA Assistant Secretary with ties to auto industry consulting groups battling asbestos lawsuits from workers, emailed11 and called12 the agency to insist the document be pulled until industry studies were included. He also warned that a lawsuit might be in the works to challenge the SHIB. Ippolito pressured Wainless to redraft the warning to include a study by Dr. David Paustenbach13, whose company, Chemrisk, has received a portion of the $23 million that GM, Ford, and DaimlerChryler have jointly paid to produce scientific papers discrediting the link between asbestos disease and brake repair.14
Wainless refused to include industry funded studies with significant conflicts of interest and was subsequently threatened with 10 day suspension without pay.15 The threat of suspension has since been withdrawn after negotiations between OSHA officials and the labor union representing Wainless.16 The SHIB, while still available on the OSHA website, must be searched for explicitly as it is not linked on the primary OSHA asbestos webpage.17
Lawsuit threatens protections at EPA
The United States is one of the few industrialized nations where asbestos products are still legal, since an EPA attempt to phase out and ban the substance18 was overturned by the courts in 1991 due to economic impact concerns.19 Reporting by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer suggests many mechanics are unaware that the ban on asbestos brake pads was overturned in court, and take no health precautions when servicing cars.20
The official EPA guidance book for these technicians, the 1986 Guidance for Preventing Asbestos Disease Among Auto Mechanics (the Gold Book)21, is being challenged by a 2003 petition filed by the international law firm Morgan, Lewis, & Bockius. 22 This law firm has refused to disclose who they are representing, but have a long association with major corporate interests.23
The petition claims “the continuing availability of the Gold Book, and its alarmist and inflammatory tone, continues to hinder a fair-minded assessment of the hazards, if any, imposed to users of asbestos-containing friction products.”24 The prevailing industry position is that asbestos exposure to auto mechanics is negligible, as stated by Michael Palese, a spokesman for Daimler-Chrysler Corp., “There is no proof of asbestos in brakes ever harming those working on or around them.”25
Yet research has shown that asbestos, in all forms, poses a serious risk for causing cancers and lung disease26. The World Health Organization has recently released a statement saying that “(1) all types of asbestos cause asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer; (2) there is no safe threshold level of exposure; (3) safer substitutes exist; (4) exposure of workers and other users of asbestos-containing products is extremely difficult to control; and (5) asbestos abatement is very costly and difficult to carry out in a completely safe way.”27 Richard Lemen, former acting director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and former assistant U.S. surgeon general, has written that “even the so called controlled use of asbestos containing brakes poses a health risk to workers, users, and their families.” 28
In response to the lawsuit, the EPA has released draft revisions to the Gold Book.29 These have faced harsh criticism from unions who claim the new guidance has been softened to placate industry. The United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) claim the new document “provides only sketchy information on the ways exposures to asbestos occur among brake mechanics,” and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) says it “fails to provide sufficient information concerning the risks of asbestos and appropriate work practices.”30
An investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and potential congressional oversight hearings will probe the actions of the EPA and OSHA for distortions of independent science in protecting auto technicians from asbestos. The GAO and Congress will examine unreasonable delays, OMB interference, failure to appropriately enforce the asbestos standard, and the threats to the OSHA scientist.31 Henshaw, the former OSHA director who called for the removal of the new OSHA warning, is being investigated by the Labor Department for violating federal ethics policies.32
OSHA and the EPA should not continue to admit the dangerous health consequences of asbestos, and then fail to protect the workers who are exposed to it because of pressures from industry and the White House. As Dr. Michael Harbut, co-director of the National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancers at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit says, “To withhold these warnings to mechanics who have no knowledge of asbestos or believe it’s banned is unconscionable.”33
1 Stern, Edward. Memorandum for David Ippolito: Response to proposed suspension. American Federation of Government Employees, Local No. 12, AFL-CIO. Nov 15, 2006. Also reported by Schneider, Andrew. Pressure at OSHA to alter warning: Author of advisory on asbestos in brakes faces suspension for refusing to revise it. The Baltimore Sun. Nov 20, 2006
2 Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Asbestos-Automotive Brake and Clutch Repair Work, Safety and Health Information Bulletin (Asbestos SHIB). July 26, 2006.
3 Environmental Working Group. Asbestos: Think Again. 2004. Table compiled from data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and several peer reviewed scientific studies – citations available on the Environmental Working Group report.
4 Stern, Edward.
5 Kucinich, Dennis J. Oversight Report: OSHA’s Failure to Monitor and Enforce Asbestos Regulations in Auto Repair Shops. March 2004.
6 Stern, Edward
7 Wainless, Ira. Positive aspects and potential liabilities for releasing the SHIB. Aug 25, 2005.
8 Crane, Daniel T., of OSHA’s Salt lake Technical Center. Letter to David Ippolito reviewing the SHIB. Oct 20, 2005.
9 Stern, Edward
10 Stern, Edward
11 Henshaw, John. Email to Ruth McCully, Director of OSHA’s Directorate of Science, Technology and Medicine. Aug 15, 2006.
12 Stern, Edward.
13 Source Watch. Dennis Paustenbach. A project of the Center for Media and Democracy.
14 Egilman, David S. Abuse of Epidemiology: Automobile manufacturers manufacture a defense to asbestos liability. International Journal of Enviromental and Occupational Health. Vol 11. No 4. Also in the response to Dr. Paustenbach’s letter of criticism of this article; Both can be found at International Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health, Vol 12 No 3.
15 Stern, Edward. Also reported by Schneider, Andrew. Brakes Warning Remains: OSHA Statement on Asbestos Exposure Hazard Survives Challenge. The Baltimore Sun. Dec 17, 2006
16 Schneider, Andrew. Brakes Warning Remains: OSHA Statement on Asbestos Exposure Hazard Survives Challenge. The Baltimore Sun. Dec 17, 2006.
18 Environmental Protection Agency. Asbestos Ban and Phase Out. Accessed June 29, 2007.
19 Corrosion Proof Fittings v. Environmental Protection Agency. United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, 1991. 947 F.2d 1201. Opinion written by Circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith.
20 Schneider, Andrew and Carol Smith. Nation’s Mechanics at Risk from Asbestos. Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Nov 16, 2000.
21 EPA. Guidance for Preventing Asbestos Disease Among Auto Mechanics (Gold Book). June 1986.
22 Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. Information Quality Act Petition on the EPA’s Gold Book, hosted by the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy. accessed July 11, 2007.
23 Loomis, Tamara. The NJL client list: Who represents corporate America – Survey shows post-convergence stability. The National Law Journal. Sept 12, 2005. Subscription required.
24 Morgan, Lewis & Bockius .Information Quality Act Petition on the EPA's Gold Book.
25 Schneider. Dec 17, 2006.
26 Lemen, Richard A. Chrysotile asbestos as a cause of mesothelioma: Application of the Hill Causation Model. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. Vol 10, no 2. April/June 2004. Also, International Program on Chemical Safety, World Health Organization. Environmental Health Criteria 203: Chrysotile Asbestos. 1998. Also Tossavainen A, et al. Consensus Report: Asbestos, asbestosis, and cancer: the Helsinki criteria for diagnosis and attribution. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, and Health. 23:311-6. 1997.
27 World Health Organization. Letter to Dr. LaDou, editor of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. May 5, 2006.
28 Lemen, Richard A. Asbestos in brakes: Exposure and risk of disease. American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Vol 45, Issue 3. Feb 23, 2004. See also Lemen. Chrysotile asbestos as a cause of mesothelioma: Application of the Hill Causation Model. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. Vol 10, no 2. April/June 2004.
29 Environmental Protection Agency. Draft Brochure: Current Best Practices for Preventing Asbestos Exposure Among Brake and Clutch Repair Workers. Accessed July 11, 2007
30 Inside OSHA. EPA Faces Competing Criticisms Over Scaled-Back Asbestos Guidance. Nov 13, 2006
31 Superfund Report. Revisions to EPA Asbestos Brake Guide Face Congressional Scrutiny. Dec 4, 2006
32 Schneider. Dec 17, 2006.
33 Schneider. Nov 20, 2006.