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Watchdog group: Industry withheld data on workplace chromium risks

Worried about stricter regulations, the chromium industry withheld key data from the government involving the health risks of workers exposed to the carcinogenic metal, according to a study released Thursday.

The paper by George Washington University and Public Citizen, published in Environmental Health, found the industry submitted incomplete data last year on the links between hexavalent chromium and lung cancer.

Hexavalent chromium, the chemical featured in the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich, is used in chrome plating, stainless steel welding and the production of chromate pigments and dyes. About 380,000 welders, steelworkers and jewelers are exposed to it on the job.

The new findings come one week before the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration was scheduled, by court order, to issue a new standard on acceptable workplace levels of chromium. A federal appeals court set the Feb. 28 deadline after Public Citizen sued over delays in issuing a rule.

"The circumstances regarding this study raise troubling questions about the ability of the government to effectively issue rules protecting public health when studies are conducted, controlled and selectively published," said Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group.

OSHA said it was working hard "to produce a final rule that complies with the court's order." A spokeswoman, Sharon Worthy, declined additional comment.

Kate McMahon, an attorney for the trade group Chrome Coalition, called charges that the industry was scheming to manipulate data "completely unfounded and wrong."

She said the industry told OSHA in 1998 that it was planning a four-site study - two in the United States and two in Germany. It then got overlooked after the bankruptcy of the chromium industry-funded group coordinating the research, the Industrial Health Foundation. The German portion of the study was not submitted to OSHA because it has yet to be published by a peer-edited journal, McMahon said.

According to the paper, in 1997 industry groups commissioned the study on chromium's risks in anticipation of an OSHA move to further restrict workplace levels of the metal.

But once the study was completed in 2002, industry groups gave OSHA selected data suggesting only the highest exposure of chromium led to a significantly higher risk of lung cancer death.