July 6, 2007 The Pump Handle 7Comment

Cong. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) held a hearing on June 25 on the federal government’s response to the hazardous air contaminants that polluted lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks.  The featured witness was former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who was in the hot seat for her claims that the air in NYC was safe to breathe.  Much less attention was paid to former OSHA assistant secretary John Henshaw, who sat next to Whitman, but was left largely unscathed by the questioning.  At least one Henshaw exchange deserves attention.  The former OSHA chief insisted there are “safe levels of exposure to asbestos.”

Cong. Bobby Scott (D-VA) asked:

Mr Henshaw, you mentioned the fact that asbestos was detected [in NYC air on 9/11] and it was over a certain level.  Are there safe levels of asbestos?

Mr. Henshaw: 

Yes sir there are safe levels of asbestos.  We have an occupational safety and health [standard,] what we call a permissible exposure limit which is 0.1 fiber/cc of air for an 8-hour average.  That is our current standard with respect to asbestos.

Cong. Scott:

And you consider that safe?

Mr. Henshaw:

Yes, sir I do.

The problem with Mr. Henshaw’s declaration about the safety of the 0.1 fiber/cc permissible exposure limit (PEL) is that OSHA itself has never asserted that this is a SAFE level of asbestos exposure.  In fact, the agency’s own risk assessment for its its 1984 proposed rule on asbestos acknowledged that there is still an excess risk of cancer even at the 0.1 fiber/cc PEL  (49 Federal Register 14116.)  Specifically OSHA estimated 3.4 excess deaths per 1,000 workers from lung cancer, mesothelioma, and gastrointestinal cancer at the 0.1 PEL for individuals exposed over a 45-year working lifetime.  (Also, the 3.4 excess deaths per 1,000 workers did not include mortality from asbestosis or other cancers.)  As is the case for most OSHA standards, the PEL is driven by what is deemed “economically and technologically feasible” for employers; it is not set at a level that has been determined safe.

Mr. Henshaw’s opinion that there is a “safe level of asbestos exposure” is out of step with the leading scientific and public health organizations.  The World Health Organization and the Institute of Medicine, for example, have concluded that there is no evidence to say there is a safe level of asbestos exposure.  Perhaps Mr. Henshaw’s views are influenced by his post-OSHA affiliation with ChemRisk, a firm that’s been assisting users of asbestos-containing products to fight lawsuits brought by exposed and injured workers. 

[If you Google “Henshaw and Associates” choice number one will be his CV posted on ChemRisk’s website.  (if it goes missing, I’ve preserved it here.)] 

David Michaels has written frequently about these product-defense firms, most recently on their efforts to be appointed to an EPA advisory committee on asbestos. (Don’t Let Mercenaries Advise EPA (5/17/07) and More on EPA Asbestos Panel (5/22/07))   

Watching Mr. Henshaw at Cong. Nadler’s June 25 hearing made me reflect on the state of occupational health and safety in the US.   We’re still debating whether asbestos is dangerous??  And similar time-wasting debates will take place about silica, beryllium, coal-mine dust and noise? 

God help the food-production workers who are exposed to diacetyl, the health care workers exposed to chemotherapeutic agents, and the mechanics and drivers exposed to diesel-particulate matter.  “So sorry, were busy deciding whether asbestos is safe.” 


FYI: The WHO’s policy statement on the elimination of asbestos-related disease is here and the Institute of Medicine’s report on Asbestos: Selected Cancers (2007) is here. 

7 thoughts on “Safe levels of asbestos, by John Henshaw

  1. Thank you so much for drawing attention to this very important part of the hearing that has undoubtedly fallen under the radar screen of the news media. Even IF the PELs were not exceeded at the WTC site, what significance does that have if the PELs are nowhere near strict enough to safeguard workers’ health?

  2. I think Mr. Henshaw said at the hearing that some of the air samples collected by OSHA exceeded the PEL. I also suspect that some of the air samples also had so much gunk on them, they were overloaded with dust and couldn’t be analyzed. When I worked at MSHA, we ran into this problem when taking airborne asbestos samples at some minining operations. Some of our samples would come back from OSHA’s lab with a designation “ND”; the abbreviation key said this meant “non-detect.” These ND’s were interpreted by MSHA industrial hygienists as none detected (a logical interpretation), when OSHA’s lab eventually clarified that ND means: nothing was detected because the sample was not readable. I wonder if OSHA has changed that ND code or updated its abbreviation key on its form.

  3. As far as I know, what matter in asbestos exposure and health risk is the average number of fibres that a person inhales over a certain period of time and not really the concentration of airborne fibres. Thus, a concentration of 0.1 fibres/ccm over 45 years can indeed significantly increase the health risk. A exposure to of even “high” concentrations of airborne asbestos for “short” time spans, i.e. a few hours / days per year can probably be neglected.

    In other words: the more fibres you breath, the higher the chances that you’ll get health problems. Purely mathematically you can say that “every” asbestos fibre you breath increases your risk to get a cancer. Now how to fix a permissible exposure limit? This remains quite arbitrary.

    Probably the concentration on Ground Zero was indeed “too” high for construction workers, because these people were there for days and weeks. But – without being a cancer specialist or a mathematician – I think that the risk for people who were in Manhatten only a few hours or days after 9/11 is “very” small.

    Just an additional point: In certain countries, health insurances pay if in the past you have been exposed to asbestos fibres, but only if you haven’t been smoking. Otherwise they consider the chance that you developed a cancer because of smoking higher than that of asbestos.

    One very last point: I think you can be sure that there was asbestos (and maybe plenty of other carcinogenic materials such as lead, PCB or PAK) in the air after 9/11. Thus it is certainly wrong to say that there was NO risk. The question that remains is again: how much is “too much”?

  4. Dr.Irving Selikoff states:ONE asbestos fiber inhaled into the lung leads to cancer.
    Children living in a asbestos contaminated evirornment are more at risk of developing mesothelioma.Children must be made the priority to protect.
    Each and everyone one of us has to educate each other to what this deadly asbestos fiber is,does,what it looks like and what to do to protect you and your family from something that will kill you.Tremolite asbestos kills you.Period.
    I am from and dying from Libby Mt.I tell all who will listen to stay away from Libby Mt as Libby is not a safe place to anything that breathes.

  5. If it is Tremolite asbestos from Libby Mt.YES this asbestos is deadly.NO CURE.One fiber will/can kill you. 30 plus million homes have this deadly asbestos in them. It will take FIVE GENERATION of suffering and dying from priovious exposure,only if we/you do something today to stop it.This is why I tell all to stay away from Libby Mt.80% of this deadly Tremolite asbestos that was shipped all over the world,came from Libby Mt.In 1963,WR Grace came to Libby,began their poisoning,knowingly.Also WR Grace was aware that they had 30 to 40 years to get away with poisoning millions,knowingly.Here we are today,2008 and the latency period is upon us.10,000 people die EVERYDAY from past exposure.What was knowingly done to all of us I call a HOLOCAUST.And the holocaust continues….WE must educate eachother in order to protect each other and those we leave behind, our children.

  6. It is also a FACT that EPA knowingly used the wrong testing scopes to test samples for asbestos.EPA WAS offered the RIGHT scopes and turn them down…In 2005,the lieing EPA told the people of Libby,Mt, that they,EPA, took 16,000 samples and found nothing….16,000 samples….And in 2007,we learned the truth and so NOW the EPA is using the right scopes to test but they are not concerned about the health and safety of the people.INSTEAD…the concern,from the White House,carried out by the EPA and others IS “How can we downplay the exposure and then”How much money can be made.Peroiod.This is why since 1999,the EPA and others have been selling Libby as a safe place to live and raise a family.AGAIN…This is a deadly lie and over 250 MORE people will suffer and die as I from not being told the truth.The truth is Libby is not safe to anything that breathes.Those people are being poisoned and no one is stopping this.I have tried since 1999 to address this known poisoning and got no where. SO This is why I tell all who will listen to stay away from Libby Mt as Libby is not safe.I tell the people what EPA and this worthless Government should be tell the people,not the oppisite to where innocent people will be exposed to Tremolite asberstos and kill them.Even the entire family will suffer and die.How in the hell is this allowed to continue.People are still being killed,knowingly….MURDERERS!!!!!!!

  7. All of thyis is half measures. The cyclic behaviour continues and humanity has learnt nothing. We all look to our leaders for guidance , but that is the trouble, we believe what they say. Now if are sceptical of our government and its motives we are branded as being ” paranoid” or ” crackpot” or ” why dont you just get over it”. But on closer examination there is no paranoia element there, it is true, and this can be based on research. But we are all made to feel wrong to question authority even when there is a blatant connection between asbestos and the deaths it has caused, and the health risks have been known since the early 1920s. But everyone is too scared, Why? If you analyse it, it comes down to economics, wealth, like everything else in this world. There is nothing wrong with being wealthy if it doesnt involve manipulation, control, repression and ultimately killing people. The cyclic behaviour continues and noone ever leans, the buck passes on, a new generation is born, the past is forgotten, and a ” new ” asbestos manifested in another guise comes along and untold millions will die again. Why? Human nature. Based on what? Making money at all costs. The reason nobody takes responsibility for the 911 airborne matter is because it should have been removed 50 years ago, but that is seen as a ” radical ” approach. I dont think its radical at all, I think its sensible. The radical appraoch is letting millions die like they are. But humans are so used to brutality that we accept this as a part of life, it becomes our habit, and we go busily along persuing other interests. Why? Because it doesnt affect us – so we think. That is until mum or dad get ill, and we say ” Oh , why isnt anything being done”. Then we think, ” hmmm, maybe all I have been told is not correct”. But people dont want to hear this. Why? Because if people really researched the world, the motives behind human behaviour – spent more than 1 hour to think about it before forming ignorant opinions – they may be disconcerted, or they should be. What are the motives of humans. Greed, wealth, fame, power in varying degrees, and to protect these motivations or hide them, we pass the buck continually to the next generations. War after war, epidemic after epidemic, abuse after abuse, and the cycle continues. Why? Because everyone is motivated by the above and not what truely matters. What truely matters ? Humanity, a human being themselves, the health of every human regardless of colour, deformity, age etc. How can we trust the attitudes of people who would make an economic decision knowing that people ” will ” die as a result. Isnt a million dollars not worth the suffering of a child, any hild for one day, let alone a life. What if it was Obamas child, or yours. Would the adviser for asbestos related airborne particles be happy, if I were to take a sample that he indicated as safe, to his house and allow ” his ” child to breath it in. Would it give him cause for concern? All of this is half measures, always has been, always will be. Why? the people in power only care about money, and as long as humanity, compassion comes second to that nothing will ever change, but we, as humans can only try too.

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