In a compelling article yesterday, the New York Times told a painful story of how workers in a furniture factory have been crippled by exposure to fumes from a toxic chemical used to glue foam cushions together (“As OSHA Emphasizes Safety, Long-Term Health Risks Fester”, NY Times 3/31/2013). Their exposure to sprayed n-propyl bromide (nPB) has left workers with nerve damage, difficulty in walking, difficulty in breathing and worse.
The story highlights why we are working so hard at the Healthy Building Network to drive the building industry toward inherently safer chemicals. Industry risk assessments would say this chemical is fine - just use the proper engineering protections in the workplace and workers will be safe. The NYT’s tale of repeated OSHA inspections and fines over the decades with no improvement in the workplace show a worker safety system that is seriously broken and no match for the pressure of globalization and anti-government regulatory fervor. Only a switch to chemicals that are inherently safer and so don’t require complex ventilation and breathing apparatus can truly protect worker health.
This story also highlights a phenomenon called “regrettable substitution.” The nPB glues became popular after a series of bans on other highly toxic chemicals used for the gluing. A quick look at the Pharos record for nPB in our Chemical and Material Library would have made clear that this alternate chemical was no better, but industry only cared that the chemical was not on a ban list. This saga makes clear why we are not content just to get rid of a few headlined chemicals of concern, but instead continually work on the Pharos system to bring more toxicity information to bear for all chemicals. Using this data and hazard assessment systems like the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals, we can insure that the chemicals used as alternatives to a known bad chemical are actually better actors.