November 21, 2014

Senate Bill 193, approved by the state legislature and signed by Governor Brown this year, will improve workplace safety and health. Toxicologist and SF Bay Area PSR Board member Julia Quint, PhD played a critical role in the new law’s development and passage. Catherine Porter, policy consultant for SF Bay Area PSR, talked with Dr. Quint about the need for SB 193:

Catherine Porter (CP): Briefly, remind us what the passage of SB 193 will do.

Julia Quint (JQ): When new scientific or medical information indicates that chemicals can cause cancer, reproductive or developmental damage and other serious health problems, SB 193 allows the Hazard Evaluation System and Information Service (HESIS) in the Occupational Health Branch, CA Department of Public Health, to identify workplaces where the chemicals are being used to warn employers and employees of the hazards and how to protect against them. This bill gives HESIS the authority to require chemical manufacturers, importers, distributors and others to provide the names and addresses of their California customers and specific information about the shipments of the chemicals and commercial products containing the chemicals. The required information is exempt from public disclosure. With SB 193, HESIS will be able to implement its existing legislative mandate to issue health hazard warnings in the most time-efficient and effective way. HESIS also will be able to set priorities based on the largest shipments and highest concentrations of chemicals of concern in products.

CP: When and how was HESIS formed?

JQ: In 1978 the Legislature established HESIS in response to an incident at a pesticide manufacturing plant where exposure to a chemical called dibromochloropropane or DBCP caused male workers to become sterile. Scientific information published 17 years earlier had shown that DBCP caused sterility in rats. However, the animal results, which could have predicted the workers’ sterility, did not reach the workplace. To help prevent future DBCP incidents, a core HESIS legislative mandate is to identify and evaluate the health hazards of workplace chemicals, translate the scientific information into practical language, and disseminate the health hazard information to employers, employees, governmental agencies and others. In addition to serving as an alert system for workplace chemical hazards, HESIS’ other legislative mandates include recommending protective exposure limits to Cal/OSHA and recommending legislative changes related to the function of HESIS.

CP: What role did you play in advancing SB 193?

JQ: In 2002, as HESIS Chief, I initiated and oversaw several program activities that established the need for SB 193. I conceived and managed a contract project with UC Berkeley to determine if any existing hazardous materials databases or systems could identify California workplaces where seven test chemicals were being used. As a part of the project, HESIS tried to obtain the same information directly, and sent written requests for their California customer lists to 96 manufacturers and distributors of the seven test chemicals. The desired outcome of the project overall was to identify a way to target Hazard Alerts to workplaces where workers are exposed to chemicals of concern. The UC Berkeley contractor found no existing state or national hazardous materials databases or systems that could identify California workplaces where the seven chemicals were used. In addition, only six of the 96 manufacturers voluntarily provided their California customer lists to HESIS.

Based on the negative results and consistent with its existing legislative mandate, HESIS developed a legislative proposal to make submission of customer lists for specific requested chemicals mandatory. Although the legislative proposal was not advanced, it was the precursor to AB 816, sponsored by Sally Lieber in 2005 and to SB 193, sponsored by William Monning in 2012. The Lieber bill passed the legislature but was vetoed by then Governor Schwarzenegger. As a retired HESIS Chief, I was actively involved with Senator Monning’s Office on SB 193. I provided technical assistance and advice throughout the process, helped to draft language, testified at legislative hearings, and attended meetings with opponents of the bill and with key legislators and their legislative aides.

CP: Were there specific instances where the need for a bill like SB 193 became obvious?

JQ: Yes. In 2003, HESIS issued a Hazard Alert on a new unregulated solvent called 1-bromopropane (1-BP), a chemical analogue of DBCP. HESIS warned that the chemical was a male and female reproductive toxicant, a developmental toxicant and caused nerve damage in workers. Based on its structure, HESIS predicted that it probably also caused cancer, which now has been confirmed. The HESIS Hazard Alert also included information on safer alternatives and on other ways to prevent health damage. However, HESIS was not able to target the information to specific workplaces where 1-bromopropane is used in California. 1-BP is now widely used as a degreaser and is sold at 90% concentration in aerosol cans; it also is used as a dry cleaning solvent.

In 2006, HESIS learned that two California workers had been diagnosed with a serious and potentially fatal lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans. Their disease was linked to exposure to diacetyl, a butter flavoring chemical, in a flavor manufacturing company. Bronchiolitis obliterans had previously been diagnosed in workers exposed to diacetyl in the microwave popcorn industry. Diacetyl also causes severe lung damage in animals. In spite of this, only five of 11 Material Safety Data Sheets for diacetyl listed bronchiolitis obliterans, and none of them listed symptoms of the disease.

To help prevent new cases of bronchiolitis obliterans, HESIS conducted extensive outreach to warn of the health hazards of diacetyl, and on how to detect the disease and reduce exposures. Unfortunately, HESIS was not able to target information to specific flavor companies that use diacetyl. In spite of the extensive outreach, five new cases of bronchiolitis obliterans were diagnosed a year later.

CP: Why do you think it was important for physicians to support SB 193?

JQ: SB 193 will help physicians and other healthcare providers recognize signs and symptoms of at-risk chemical exposures and act to prevent serious illnesses and diseases from developing. Workers exposed to the chemicals will have HESIS health hazard information that they will be able to share with their physicians. Most physicians are not trained in occupational and environmental medicine, do not take occupational histories, and with the few exceptions (e.g., lead and mercury), usually do not have information on chemical-induced chronic illnesses and diseases. As a result, work-related health problems caused by chemical exposures often are misdiagnosed or the diagnoses are delayed.

In 2008, for example, a worker exposed to 1-brompropane developed nerve damage. His condition was incorrectly diagnosed as plantar fasciitis. The worker found the HESIS 1-bromopropane hazard alert on the Internet and took it to his physician. After consulting with HESIS via their statewide Telephone Helpline, the physician was able to correctly diagnose the worker’s condition. In the case of diacetyl, workers did not have health hazard information to share with their healthcare providers. Initially, their bronchiolitis obliterans caused by diacetyl exposure was misdiagnosed as asthma and they were given inhalers to treat their condition.

CP: Any additional thoughts on your experience working on SB 193?

JQ: Working on SB 193 reinforced the benefits of collaboration, compromise, and patience. While the public health work of HESIS and the Occupational Health Branch established the need for legislation, SB 193 would not be a reality without the dedication, leadership, and tireless work of Senator Monning and his staff and Attorney Fran Schreiberg, a long-time worker health and safety advocate, and without the many organizations, including SF Bay Area PSR, who supported the bill and advocated for it at critical junctures throughout its two-year history. The opponents’ willingness to meet with Senator Monning’s office to discuss the bill, the compromises by both sides, and the removal of opposition to the bill also were critical. It reinforced the virtue of patience since the need for legislation was established in 2002, legislation failed in 2005, and SB 193 was signed into law in 2014.

The experience also was a reminder of the importance of protecting health and the environment by ensuring the safety of chemicals prior to marketing and developing cost-effective and efficacious safer alternatives to toxic chemicals. It underscored the importance, in the interim, however, of targeting early warnings to workplaces that use chemicals of concern given the lag in regulating chemicals and the enforcement challenges. Despite the serious health hazards posed by 1-bromopropane, for example, California is the only state with a workplace exposure limit; it was adopted in 2009 six years after HESIS issued the hazard alert in 2003.