Reuters recently posted a story from Suzhou, China about workers at a factory making touch screens on contract for Apple who have been injured (including potentially at least one death) by inhaling hexyl hydride, also known as n-Hexane. According to the Reuters story, Wintek, the Taiwan, China company that owns the factory where the touch screens are made, switched from using regular alcohol to n-Hexane, because the chemical evaporates faster, and therefore sped up production of the touch screens. Unfortunately, Reuters reported that at least 137 workers became ill from inhaling the chemical, or absorbing it through their skin. That the workers could be made sick by the use of n-Hexane was both predictable and preventable, and therefore inexcusable. n-Hexane has been recognized for more than 40 years to cause long-lasting and even permanent nerve damage in feet, legs, hands, and arms.
Stories about industrial, environmental, and health problems in China can frequently be convenient windows for looking into our own regulatory structure for protecting the public, whether from contaminated food, dangerous toys, or the use of unsafe chemicals in products and the workplace. Of course, there is overlap between the two countries, such as when infant formula contaminated with toxic melamine, or toy jewelry contaminated with deadly lead or cadmium were imported from China and sold here in the U.S. But we have our own problems right here at home, including a historic failure to require tens of thousands of chemicals that are being used in the workplace or in commercial and consumer products to be tested for safety. Although we have some partial workplace controls in place for exposure to some chemicals (including n-Hexane), by and large they are weak, poorly enforced and inadequate to protect workers on the job.
Which leads me back to one of my favorite topics (at least for blogging): the need to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to better protect consumers, workers, and everyone else from exposure to unsafe chemicals like n-Hexane, whether in the workplace, at school, at home, or anywhere else. n-Hexane is widely used in the United States, primarily in industrial settings as a solvent, but it is also found in common household products such as stain removers, spray adhesives, and craft paints. Although its dangers are well known, EPA has not taken any steps to regulate use of or exposure to n-Hexane in the 35 years since TSCA was enacted. That’s because EPA is handcuffed from doing so, by the many problems with the law.
As a result, poisonings by n-Hexane have not only occurred in China, they have also happened right here in the U.S. n-Hexane is just one of scores of chemicals which we know cause serious health effects (cancer, neurological problems, reproductive harm) and which we also know people are widely exposed to. EPA needs the authority to take action and protect the public from unsafe chemicals like n-Hexane, without waiting for additional years of study or surmounting endless legal hurdles thrown up by the chemical industry. Uses of n-Hexane should have been restricted, if not banned outright, years ago. There are safer alternatives, including water-based solvents for many uses. A functioning regulatory system would require chemicals to meet a safety standard to remain on the market, and would allow EPA to quickly take steps to reduce exposure to chemicals we already know are unsafe. Right now, TSCA doesn’t do that.
The story of workers in China, exposed to a dangerous chemical with little or no recourse to affect their workplace safety evokes another timely issue here in the U.S. There is currently a battle taking place in Wisconsin; that is sure to be replayed in other states, over efforts to limit the collective bargaining rights of public unions to only cover wages, but not other terms or conditions of employment. I’m no labor expert, but it seems to me that workplace safety, including the need to have a voice about the kinds of toxic chemicals that may be used in the workplace (say, in the repair shop of a state-employed auto mechanic, or in the art supplies of a school teacher, or in the cleaning supplies of the janitors who clean state buildings), or how those workplaces might be arranged to minimize or eliminate the risk of exposure to such chemicals, is a legitimate and appropriate subject for collective bargaining, and one that should not simply be taken away by an executive or legislature under the guise of cutting a budget shortfall. Particularly in the absence of meaningful federal protections for workers or the public from toxic chemicals, efforts to remove one tool for ensuring or improving workplace safety seems like a major step backwards. It would make our system look a little more like China’s. And not in a good way.