Expanding the right to know: California workers gain additional access to workplace toxics information as new hazards emerge

"If the California Public Health Department had been able to find out that my company was using a chemical that was killing people, I might never have gotten so sick that I had to have a lung transplant," Ricardo Corona told a California Judiciary Committee last April, testifying in favor of California Senate Bill (SB) 193 that Governor Jerry Brown signed into law on September 29th. The law, which amends California's Hazard Evaluation System and Information Service (HESIS), will become the first in the country to require companies that manufacture and distribute toxic chemicals to provide a government agency – in this case the California Department of Public Health – with information about where those chemicals are being shipped. While this sounds more bureaucratic than groundbreaking, Corona's testimony illustrates vividly how this law could change lives for the better.

As Corona explained to the California Senate committee, he began work in 2006 at a California company that makes food flavorings. His job was to make butter flavorings. As he described during the hearing, in the course of his work, Corona "was exposed to a lot of dust and powder" and breathed the compounds into his lungs as he worked. He did so without having been given respiratory protection or any training about the hazards of this dust. Not long after, Corona started having trouble breathing and a doctor diagnosed asthma. But Corona's breathing worsened. Eventually, he lost a reported 80% of his breathing capacity and required a lung transplant. Similarly affected and waiting for a lung transplant at the time of the April 2013 California Senate hearing was Corona's co-worker Irma Ortiz.

The chemical to which Corona and Ortiz had been exposed was diacetyl. It's used to give microwave popcorn and other snack foods a buttery taste. Diacetyl is also used in baked goods, candy, pet food and other products. Exposure to it is linked with serious respiratory illness including bronchiolitis obliterans – the irreversible obliteration of the small airway passages in the lungs. "My employer did not warn me about the very toxic effects on my lungs of this butter flavoring chemical. The label didn't have anything on it," Corona told the California Senate committee. "If my employer and the workers in our company had been told right away that diacetyl was causing dangerous lung problems, I would not be sitting here today with a transplanted lung," said Corona.

"Workers like me me need SB 193 so we can get the right information from our employers when the California Health Department learns about a serious problem," explained Corona. The law, he said, "could have kept me from being exposed to toxic chemicals that caused permanent damage. And it could have helped my doctors to figure out that the chemicals at work were killing me. The doctors could have given me information on how to be protected."

Limitations, caveats and new hazards

As Frances Schreiberg, attorney with the Oakland, California-based law firm Kazan, McClain, Satterley & Greenwood explains, SB 193 – which will take effect on January 1, 2016 – advances the availability of vital workplace chemical hazard information but it does so with limitations. It will require that, upon request and when there there new scientific or medical evidence indicating that a substance may pose serious new or previously unrecognized occupational hazards, companies provide HESIS with the names and addresses of businesses and places of employment in California that have purchased the substances in question. Companies will so be required to tell HESIS the quantity of the chemical purchased, even when it's part of a mixture. This information will be used to carry out HESIS' work and won't be published publicly unless another law requires such disclosure. And the new law won't apply to chemicals used in consumer products or to other sellers of these chemicals.

With this downstream data in hand, HESIS can ask an employer how it is using a toxic chemical and how the firm is protecting workers, explains Schreiberg. This information will also help HESIS work with employers to find safer substitutes for hazardous chemicals and help HESIS develop and issue hazard alerts –ideally before workers like Ricardo Corona and Irma Ortiz get sick.

"There's nothing exactly comparable at the federal level," says Schreiberg.

The law is limited to new scientific and medical information about a chemical's health effects, which could include hazards not detailed on material safety data sheets (MSDS) in use when the law becomes effective. Take the case of 1-bromopropane – a solvent used as an industrial cleaner for electronics, metals, optics, with adhesives used in manufacturing foam cushions, in aircraft maintenance, asphalt and synthetic fiber production as well as in dry cleaning, among other applications. The material safety data sheets (MSDSs) currently available online from Science Lab and SigmaAldrich, for example, contain no information indicating that 1-bromopropane might be carcinogenic to humans. The National Toxicology Program's just released 13th Report on Carcinogens, however,describes 1-bromopropane as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in experimental animals."

The 13th Report on Carcinogens (RoC) also lists o-toluidine – used primarily to make rubber chemicals, herbicides, dyes, pigments and some medical products – as a "known" human carcinogen. Current MSDSs list it as a "possible" carcinogen. Similarly, the 13th RoC newly lists cumene as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen" while existing MSDSs for cumune include no indication of such carcinogenicity. While cumene is a naturally-occurring component of petroleum, tobacco smoke and coal tar, it is also used in manufacturing acetone (a solvent) and phenol, both of which are widely used in plastics production.

Meanwhile there's additional new chemical hazard information in the updated ChemSec Substitute It Now or SIN list (produced by the Göteburg, Sweden-based International Chemical Secretariat) released on October 8th that added 28 chemicals to the existing list of more than 800. Thirteen of these chemicals have been added because they've been identified as persistent, bioaccumulative toxins, five because they've been identified as carcinogens, mutagens and/or reproductive toxicants and 10 were added because of their endocrine disrupting properties. Among the SIN list additions are flame retardants, plasticizers, chemicals used as food packaging coatings, waterproofing agents, lubricants, solvents, and in inks, paper and textiles among other products. It's worth noting that endocrine disruption – interference with hormones that regulate a host of vital body systems, including metabolism and reproduction and also play an important role in maintaining neurological, cardiovascular, developmental and immune system health – is typically absent from toxicological information included on MSDSs.

How effective California's new law will prove in protecting workers like Richard Corona and Irma Ortiz from chemical hazards remains to be seen. But workers and employers alike will now have a legally enforceable tool that will enable them to ask where chemicals with newly identified health hazards are being used throughout California. While but a drop in the bucket of workers exposed to toxic chemicals worldwide – and still constrained by confidential information provisions – it at least offers a way to share this information and prompt worker protection that might be adopted and expanded elsewhere.


Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.


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