Journal of public health policy

Limitations of occupational air contaminant standards, as exemplified by the neurotoxin N-hexane.

PMID 10643170


Available industry guidelines and federal standards have failed to fully protect workers from chemical toxicity: none exist for most chemicals, many are biased toward what can easily be achieved, and many were developed long after health consequences became evident. Limitations of occupational air contaminant standards in the United States are well illustrated by standard-setting for the neurotoxin n-hexane. In the 1940s, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) first promulgated industrial guidelines known as "threshold limit values" (TLVs), including an 8-hour time-weighted average of 500 ppm for inspired n-hexane. Despite subsequent recognition of the neurotoxicity of n-hexane with industrial outbreaks of polyneuropathy beginning in the 1960s, the TLV for n-hexane remained unchanged until 1976 when a value of 100 ppm was adopted. Because a growing number of clinical reports have identified clinical and subclinical neurotoxicity from n-hexane near, at, and below the current time-weighted average TLV of 50 ppm, even this level is too high to protect all workers. In part due to procedural and political constraints, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has independently developed only a small number of exposure standards in the past 25 years, and has been incapable of providing needed revisions for existing standards. Most OSHA standards--including those for n-hexane--were adopted in 1971 from the 1968 ACGIH TLVs and have never been revised. From 1971 to 1989 the OSHA permissible exposure level (PEL) for n-hexane remained at 500 ppm, 5-10 times as great as other contemporary standards. To help correct its regulatory backlong, OSHA promulgated 375 new or revised PELs in 1989--including a new standard of 50 ppm for n-hexane--but all of these were vacated by the 11th U.S. Court of Appeals in 1992. As a result, the current OSHA PEL for n-hexane remains at the 500 ppm level adopted in 1971, which even then was too high based upon available scientific evidence. New information over this long period, including that obtained from industrial outbreaks of disease due to chemical exposures, has not been incorporated into revised federal standards.