Chromium, cancer link established

Activists demoan wait for Hopkins study of city plant workers

July 12, 2000|By Diana K. Sugg and Jonathan Bor | Diana K. Sugg and Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

A new study of workers at the former Allied-Signal factory in Fells Point has finally proved that chromium is to blame for their high rates of lung cancer.

Released yesterday, the study found that the more workers were exposed to certain chromium compounds, the higher their risk of disease.

"This is the final linchpin in terms of proof," said Dr. Peter Lees, the study's author and an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

The report confirms past Hopkins studies over the last several decades that found workers who breathed in certain chromium compounds, known as hexavalent chromium, doubled their risk of dying from lung cancer.

The research also bolsters the long-standing argument of public health advocates that the federal standards for chromium exposure need to be tightened.

"At the current allowable levels of exposure, we've certainly shown that there is some risk of lung cancer," said Lees.

Long time coming

The Public Citizen Health Research Group criticized the Hopkins researchers yesterday for taking four years to publish the study after releasing preliminary data at a 1996 conference.

Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director of the Washington-based advocacy group, said faster publication would have protected the lives of thousands of people still working in industries that use chromium.

In the early 1980s, an estimated 200,000 to 390,000 people in the United States were employed in factories that used chromium, according to the advocacy group.

Since then, chrome has all but disappeared from automobile bumpers and trim, but it is still used widely in paint pigments and in leather and wood preservatives.

The group has lobbied the federal government since 1993 to reduce the legal limit for chromium exposure in U.S. factories, even filing a lawsuit asking that the limit be 200 times lower than it is now.

Though the metal was long ago identified as a carcinogen, Lurie said the Hopkins study is the most comprehensive such work yet and could have been used to bolster the group's case.

Normal scientific process

But Lees, the lead researcher, said the delay was part of the normal scientific process.

The 1996 presentation was of preliminary results, he said, and more data and analysis were necessary for a comprehensive study. He provided the 1996 data to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and he submitted the article for publication to the American Journal of Industrial Medicine a year ago.

For its part, OSHA said in a statement that it would use the Hopkins report as its scientists work on a new chromium limit, as well as other potential regulations of the chemical.

Meanwhile, the Fells Point factory, which closed in 1985, is being eyed by developers as a site for apartments and offices.

The plant, which was the first chrome-processing factory in the United States, turned into one of Maryland's most difficult hazardous waste clean-up sites.

Allied-Signal, which was purchased last year by New-Jersey-based Honeywell, spent $100 million to tear it down and clean it up, including installing a pollution-containment system to keep the chromium underground.

Low risk from waste

Today, scientists believe there is little danger.

"As that site is right now, the risk down there is about as close to zero as you can get," Lees said.

Said Dr. Bruce A. Fowler, the director of toxicology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, "If the capping is as good as I remember it, I would think the risk would be a very small level at best."

Fowler said the Hopkins finding is another example of a trend in modern medicine, as more sophisticated testing allows scientists to detect health problems caused by chemicals like chromium at lower levels.

"We keep finding things at lower and lower levels," Fowler said. "We haven't found the basement yet."

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